An excellent way to focus our thoughts and deepen our understanding of the meaning of Lent is to turn to the Bible. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know where to start. That is why the Catholic Church has provided us with the Office of the Readings, part of the Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the Church. In the Office of the Readings, the Church has chosen scriptural passages that are appropriate to every day of the year.
Every season of the Church year has a certain theme or themes. During Lent, we see four themes in these readings:
- The need for proper repentance
- Israel of the Old Testament as the model of the New Testament Church
- Israel’s exodus from Egypt to the Holy Land as the model of the Christian journey out of sin into the Kingdom of Heaven
- Jesus Christ as the eternal high priest
Fasting is about more than refraining from food or other pleasures. In today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 58:1-12), the Lord explains that fasting that does not lead to works of charity does us no good. This is good advice as we begin our Lenten journey.
Starting today, and running through the third week of Lent, our readings are drawn from the Book of Exodus. In Exodus 1:1-22, we read about the oppression endured by the nation of Israel, the Old Testament model of the New Testament Church, at the hands of Pharaoh. The slavery of the Israelites represents our slavery to sin.
In Exodus 2:1-22, we witness the birth of Moses, his rescue from Pharaoh’s order to kill all newborn male Israelites, and his killing of an Egyptian. To escape Pharaoh’s wrath, he flees to the land of Midian, setting into motion the events that will lead to the exodus of Israel from Egypt.
In Exodus 3:1-20, Moses first encounters God in the burning bush, and God announces His plans to have Moses lead the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. We begin to see the parallels between slavery in Egypt and our slavery to sin, and between Heaven and the "land that floweth with milk and honey."
In Exodus 5:1-6:1, Moses, obeying God's command, asks Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to sacrifice to God in the desert. Pharaoh refuses his request and, instead, makes life even harder for the Israelites. Slavery to sin, like the Israelite's slavery in Egypt, only becomes harder with time. True freedom comes by following Christ out of our bondage to sin.
In Exodus 6:2-13, God discusses in greater detail the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to bring them into the Promised Land. The Israelites, however, will not listen to the good news that God has revealed to Moses, because they have been worn down by their slavery. Still, God vows to bring the Israelites to the Promised Land despite themselves.
In Exodus 6:29-7:25, as God predicted, Pharaoh refuses to listen to the request of Moses and Aaron to allow the Israelites to go out into the desert to worship God. Therefore, God begins to send plagues upon the land of Egypt, through the actions of Moses and Aaron. The first plague involves turning all the water in Egypt into blood, depriving the Egyptians both of drinking water and of fish.
In Exodus 10:21-11:10, Pharaoh continues to refuse to let the Israelites go, so, for three days, God engulfs Egypt in darkness. The only light in the land is found with the Israelites themselves—a sign, because from Israel would come Jesus Christ, the light of the world.
In Exodus 12:1-20, Pharaoh's stubbornness has come to this: God is going to kill the firstborn of every household of Egypt. The Israelites, however, will be protected from harm, because they will have slaughtered a lamb and marked their doors with his blood. Seeing it, God will pass over their houses. This is the origin of the Passover.
In Exodus 12:21-36, the Israelites have followed the Lord's command and celebrated the first Passover. The blood of the lamb has been applied to their door frames, and, seeing this, the Lord passes over their houses. Each firstborn of the Egyptians, however, is slain by the Lord. In despair, Pharaoh orders the Israelites to leave Egypt, and all of the Egyptians urge them on.
Expelled from Egypt after the Passover, the Israelites head toward the Red Sea in Exodus 12:37-49 and 13:11-16. The Lord orders Moses and Aaron to tell the Israelites that they must celebrate the Passover every year. Moreover, once they have come into the Promised Land, they must offer every firstborn son and animal to the Lord. While the animals will be sacrificed, the firstborn sons are redeemed through the sacrifice of an animal.