Lenten days bring two images immediately to mind, at least to my own idle mind. The first is of the bishops' gathering that first established Lent in 325 during the great ecumenical council in the Turkish town of Isnik — then called Nicaea. Some of the bishops there had been mutilated in the persecutions of the emperors Maximin and Licinius….[The bishops]…ordered a time of fasting and penance lasting 40 days…presumably because Moses, Elijah, and Christ had fasted 40 days.
There are bishops maimed like those Nicean bishops today in China…When one of them, Ignatius Cardinal Kung, was released in 1985 after 30 years in prison, he was surprised to learn that the Church's Friday meat abstinence had been changed….While his internment had been a perpetual Lent, he thought the mortifications of his brethren in the West had been sustaining him. In fact, it had been the other way around….
Over the years, the nature of the Lenten fasts and penances varied, and not until the seventh century in the West was Ash Wednesday added so that Lent might last the full 40 days if Sundays were exempted. As early as the time of the Council of Nicaea, however, the Church in Jerusalem had kept Lent for eight five-day weeks. The word "Lent" comes from the Old English lencten, after the season of spring with its lengthening daylight….
Modern man has had a long Lent. You could say it lasted the entire 20th century…..As a church, we have been mortified: By neglecting the intellectual case against Christ's cultured despisers; by trusting in bureaucracies and utopian movements; by imputing divine inspiration to private conceits; by slothfulness in the face of infanticide; by complacency about hunger and injustice; by grossly exaggerating the value of entertainers and professional athletes while neglecting spiritual heroes; by confusing tradition and nostalgia; by degrading our artistic patrimony; by banality in the pulpits; by scandals and refusing to speak of them as unspeakable; by the consecration of mediocrity; by voting for degenerate Caesars when we had the political power to dethrone them; by contempt for history; by impatience with God's unfathomable patience; by failing to give God thanks for the grace of living in a time of so many saints and miracles — in short, by softness in hard times….
Lent is a small familiarity with the inexhaustible drama of redemption in which eternity transfigures mortality: "[W]hen I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians)….[W]hen Lent is done, souls attain to the stature of heaven by having measured their own smallness….