Liturgy Lines: Aspects of Lent

by Elizabeth Harrington. 

This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on March 2nd, 2017.

At Mass this Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, a few features of the liturgy during this season will be obvious – no Glory to God in the introductory rites, no joyful Alleluias to greet the Gospel, and the use of purple vestments and hangings.

We all know that Lent is 40 days long – well around 40, depending on when you start counting and what, if any, days are omitted! The number 40 has symbolic rather than literal meaning. It is based on Christ’s 40 days in the desert and on the fasts of Moses and Elias, so exact calculations are not important.

The six weeks of Lent are not repetitive but rather cumulative. One way of understanding the structure of Lent is this:

  • The first four weeks take their direction from the readings, penitential rites and the rites related to the Catechumenate (RCIA).
  • On the fifth Sunday of Lent (25th March this year) the focus shifts to Christ’s passion.
  • Holy Week runs from Passion/Palm Sunday until the beginning of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.
  • The Triduum (Latin for “three days”) refers to the period from the evening of Holy Thursday until the evening of Easter Sunday.

A popular practice in many parishes during Lent is the Stations of the Cross. The Church has never provided an official ritual for celebrating the Stations. In 1975, the Central Committee for the Holy Year suggested a list of Stations of the Cross that is more in keeping with the gospel accounts than the traditional form.  It begins with the Last Supper and concludes with Christ’s resurrection.

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have used another set of Stations that differs from the traditional 14 when celebrating the Way of Cross at the Colosseum during Holy Week. It also omits those events that are not attested to in the biblical account of the Passion.

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2002 makes a number of what it describes as “useful suggestions for a fruitful celebration of the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross)”. These include:

  • Alternative forms of the Stations approved by Rome or used by the popes “can be regarded as genuine forms of the devotion and may be used as the occasion might warrant”.
  • The choice of texts should take account of the wise pastoral principle of integrating renewal and continuity. It is always preferable to choose texts written in a clear simple style.
  • The celebration could end with a commemoration of the Lord’s resurrection “to leave the faithful with a sense of expectation of the resurrection in faith and hope”.
  • “The Via Crucis in which hymns, silence, procession and reflective pauses are wisely integrated in a balanced manner contribute significantly to obtaining the spiritual fruits of the pious exercise.”

As we remember the sufferings of Jesus, we are led into the celebration of Christ’s victory over death and into the renewal of our commitment to the life of faith at the Easter sacraments.

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane.


  1. To update this: Laetare Sunday falls on March 26th this year; the Fifth Sunday of Lent falls on April 2nd.

  2. I would strongly disagree with the assertion that “On the fifth Sunday of Lent… the focus shifts to Christ’s passion.”

    She gives no background to this assertion, and treats it as self evident. But, sorry, it does not comport with the facts. The Fifth Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of the Third Scrutiny. The Johannine gospel concerns the promise of eternal life; it is focused very clearly by the Rite of Scrutiny which “completes the conversion” of the elect and announces the identity of Christ “as life” — the dual purpose of “purification and enlightenment.” The raising of Lazarus, like many Lenten readings, may resonate with the Passion, but that is not its main focus nor the reason why it is placed where it is in the Lectionary. The dialogue with Martha and the proclamation that Jesus is the resurrection and the life is the core of this Sunday’s Liturgy. We absolutely should not focus on the passion of Jesus at that time. Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion offers ample opportunity to “shift to Christ’s passion.”

    Even beyond this: the three Sundays — Third, Fourth, and Fifth — are interrelated in the structure of the season. Each year of the Lectionary Cycle has a particular logic for that group of three Sundays. They form a unit in A and C. To split them (by saying the focus shifts between 4 and 5 in Year A) isn’t respectful of that structure.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      It’s true that the Lectionary selections for the Fifth Sunday do not partake of pivot in emphasis, but the collect, proper antiphons and preface, and the Liturgy of the Hours, and during the week that follows, arguably partake of an increasing foreshadowing of the Holy Week to follow. Perhaps one might reasonably understand it as a Passiontide-light? Lectionary selections are not the only form of emphasis, though it’s often forgotten that’s the case.

      Also, while the lections for Year A certainly have the Scrutinies in mind, for the other two years, they don’t necessarily, and for those years the Year A lections would only be offered at Masses where the Scrutinies were being undertaken.

      Mind you, I love the Sunday lections for Lent in all three years. There’s a strong structure to them. That said, I don’t think the postconciliar liturgical structure for Lent obliterates all traces of Passiontide (in contrast to pre-Lent), but mercifully retains some contrapuntal texture instead of rationalizing everything into a linear flow. Which was wise, because a too-linear approach invites a sense of historical reenactment that would be comparatively impoverished

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        We were talking about this year, which is where my comments come from, yet I think the other cycles also do not comport well with this characterization. The relative weight of these gospel texts is actually very high in practice, and you can focus on the Passion at any Mass if you want, it’s not as though you can’t. I am also totally comfortable with your suggestion that the week following introduces the themes of Passion in the hours and in the weekday lectionary. My only beef is with this “pivot” as an apt characterization of the fifth Sunday of Lent.

      2. @Rita Ferrone:
        As my first comment implies, my sense is that this was not originally written for this year (though maybe it was re-run this year). The last times the Fifth Sunday of Lent fell on March 25th was 5 years ago in 2012, and 10 years ago, in 2007. And that would have been Year B and C, respectively, right?

        I do agree that the Scrutinies have a certain privileged place within Lent, but while one would hope that communities that do not have catechumens undertaking the Scrutinies (which may be many places) would be mindful of the church-wide catechumenate, in practice I don’t think it’s felt as much as one might hope.

  3. If preachers and music planners decide this is now time to focus on the Passion of Jesus, it makes a hash of the other — arguably more important — thematics of the Scrutinies.

  4. Out of the proper texts, the only ones for Lent 5 that have a truly pre-Passion sense to them are the Entrance Antiphon and the Opening Collect. The prayer over the gifts, post-communion prayer, and prayer over the people are pretty generic. The prefaces and communion antiphons accommodate the varying Lectionary years.
    Lectionary year B – which focuses more on the cross/death/resurrection – seems best suited to the pre-Passion interpretation of Lent 5. Year A (initiation) and Year C (conversion), while they can certainly be seen through that lens, are not as directly connected.

    1. @Alan Hommerding:
      I agree, but there’s greater residue during the ensuing week and in the daily office. Hence my somewhat jocular suggestion of referring to it Passiontide-light. It’s why I don’t think the option for veiling is inappropriate – it’s not entirely alien to the sensibility of the week. Pre-Lent is done and gone in the reformed liturgy, but Passiontide not entirely so, and that seems fitting all things considered. In terms of ascetic practice, that fifth week can really drag (the fourth week having the option of an opening day of respite on Laetare Sunday), and a theme of perseverance in struggle makes seems to naturally invite more of a pivot towards direct contemplation of the coming celebrations of Christ’s final journey towards the Paschal Mystery, and having the liturgy underscore that would also be fitting.

  5. As a Lutheran I have used St. John Paul II’s “Scriptural Stations of the Cross” both in the parish and in Lutheran Cursillo weekends to great devotion and acceptance. A frustration was finding mountable plaques with these Stations for placement in the sanctuary as permanent fixtures. I found a set from Italy well over $20,000 (that was half my salary when I retired!); a man made a set for Cursillo with images I found online as “The Hands”, but that was the best I could do.

    What a great way to make the Stations more ecumenical than to address the issue this article addressed: observance of the events in Scripture.

    Now that I am retired, the absence of these fixtures means it is unlikely that any Lutherans in the metro Phoenix area, beyond Cursillistas, will benefit from this devotion. Sad, indeed.

    1. @Padre Dave the Lutheran:
      The funny thing for Catholics is that the indulgence associated with the devotion doesn’t require the stations to have an image; it’s the cross that is the core of “legitimately erected” stations. (But, because the stations in churches normally include an image with the cross, it’s also the situation where “crux” doesn’t automatically equate to “crucifix” – which an English word that makes a distinction the Latin normally doesn’t need to make – because there is an accompanying image.)

      Ah, to pine for the good old days when the different religious orders got dibs on different popular devotions: needing a Franciscan to set up your stations, a Dominican to bless your Dominican rosary, et cet. The Catholic Tech Geek Squads….


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