The evolution of Lent

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A cross is marked on the forehead of a woman during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Photo: CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters
A cross is marked on the forehead of a woman during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Photo: CNS photo/Adrees Latif, Reuters

“Dear Father, I know that the last two weeks of Lent are special and was wondering how this came about. I can understand Holy Week being different but am curious about the week preceding it.”

You are right in saying that the last two weeks of Lent are special and they even have a special name: Passiontide. Passiontide begins on the fifth Sunday of Lent, which has been called Passion Sunday since the ninth century. The season is reflected in the liturgy of the Mass in that after Passion Sunday the two Prefaces of the Passion are used on weekdays instead of the Prefaces of Lent. Passiontide is even older than Lent, having been a period of fasting as early as the third century.

On the eve of Passion Sunday it has been traditional to cover all crucifixes, statues and pictures in the church with a purple cloth as a sign of mourning. The only images not covered by a veil are those of the Stations of the Cross and any stained glass windows.

There are various explanations of the origin of the custom. One is that it originated in Rome, where in the early centuries the images in the Pope’s chapel were covered by a veil when the deacon sang the concluding words of the Sunday Gospel, “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” (Jn 8:59).

Another explanation is that the custom derived from a practice in Germany in the ninth century of extending a large cloth in front of the altar from the beginning of Lent. This cloth, known as the “Hungertuch” or hunger cloth, hid the altar from the view of the people until the reading of the Passion on Wednesday of Holy Week, at the words “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”

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Some say the custom was a remnant of the ancient practice of ritually expelling public penitents from the church at the beginning of Lent. After the custom of public penance fell into disuse and the entire congregation was symbolically incorporated into the order of penitents through the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, it was no longer possible to expel the penitents from the church, and so instead the altar was shielded from view until the penitents were reconciled with God at Easter.

Later in the Middle Ages crosses and the images of saints were also covered at the beginning of Lent. The custom of limiting this veiling to the last two weeks of Lent appears in the Ceremonial of Bishops in the 17th century (cf. J. Flader, Question Time 4, q. 573).

The Gospel readings during Passiontide are taken mainly from the Gospel of St John and they follow the events in Our Lord’s life in the last days before his passion and death.

For many centuries on the Friday after Passion Sunday the Church celebrated the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, commemorating the suffering of Mary as recorded in the Gospels. This was a very popular devotion in medieval times.

In 1423 a synod in Cologne introduced a Mass text and prescribed a feast in honour of the Seven Sorrows to be celebrated annually on the third Sunday after Easter.

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After 1600 the feast became popular in France, and it was celebrated there on Friday of the fifth week of Lent. In 1727 Pope Benedict XIII extended the feast to the whole Church with the title the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In 1668 a second feast of the seven sorrows came to be celebrated by the Order of the Servants of Mary, the Servites, on the third Sunday of September. It was incorporated into the universal calendar by Pope Pius VII in 1814. In 1913 Pope Pius X moved the feast to 15 September, the day after the feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross and it is still celebrated on that day.

To eliminate the duplication of the feast, the earlier feast on Friday of the fifth week of Lent was removed when the liturgical calendar was revised in 1969.

When the persecutions ended in the fourth century, the faithful in Jerusalem began to re-enact the solemn entry of Christ into the city on the Sunday before Easter, holding branches in their hands and singing the “Hosanna” (cf. Mt 21:1-11).

This gave rise to the Palm Sunday celebration which continues today. The custom soon spread to Rome and was incorporated into the liturgy. At least from the eighth century, the rite of blessing of the palms took place followed by a procession of the clergy and lai