Liturgy Matters — Penitential season of Lent

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

By Dr. Judy Bullock

We are a few weeks into Lent, the one truly penitential season in the liturgical year. The signs of the season are plentiful within the environment of the worship space and in the manner of celebration of the liturgy.

The decor of the worship space during Lent, although not focused on symbols of Christ’s passion until the days of Holy Week, are marked by a certain austerity. The liturgical color for Lent is violet or purple with the exception of white vestments for the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19 and the Annunciation of the Lord on March 25 and red for Palm Sunday.

In addition to the change of liturgical color, the placement of flowers around the altar is not permitted during Lent. A certain reserve is maintained in the celebrations of all other sacraments during the Lenten season.

The music for the season is also significantly altered. During Lent the organ and other musical instruments may be used only to support the singing. In other words, instrumental preludes and postludes and other selections of this nature are not played during Lent. The only exceptions to this are the solemnities and feasts that occur within the Lenten season. The Fourth Sunday of Lent or Laetare Sunday gets special attention as well, since it marks the half way point in Lent. Rose vestments may be worn on this Sunday.

The Glory to God is not sung or recited on the Sundays of Lent and is only included on the weekday solemnities of St. Joseph and the Annunciation. Most noticeably, the use of the “Alleluia” is completely eliminated during this entire season, even on the solemnities that occur during Lent. The usual “Alleluia” and verse before the proclamation of the Gospel is replaced with another acclamation of praise. Even hymns and song that have an “Alleluia” within the verses may not be sung. This fasting from the “Alleluia” during Lent makes the first time it is heard again at the Easter Vigil have special significance and provides a celebratory atmosphere. Perhaps more to the point, the reasons for all of these changes during the Lenten season are to set the tone and urge us into a penitential frame of mind.

The directives for Lent place the focus of this season on reconciliation and baptism. Although reconciliation seems a natural fit for a penitential season, we usually associate baptism with the Easter season.

Why is baptism a focus for Lent? For catechumens, the Lenten journey is their final period of preparation for the Easter sacraments and full initiation into the Catholic faith community. As members, we take this journey along with the catechumens, supporting them and praying for them during these final weeks of preparation. For each of us, however, the baptismal focus of Lent is also on the renewal of our own baptismal promises. When we enter the church, place our hand in the baptismal font and sign ourselves with the symbol of the cross, we are renewing our own commitment to “put on Christ.”

On Palm Sunday in the introductory address for Holy Week, the priest says these words, “Dear brothers and sisters, since the beginning of Lent until now we have prepared our hearts by penance and charitable works.” Each year these words always present a challenge for me. Have I prepared my heart by penance and charitable works to celebrate these most holy days of the church year? In these final weeks of Lent, we still have time to make this a reality.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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