The GIRM and Lent

After a week off, I’m back with a little bit more liturgical catechesis.

We have now entered the penitential season of Lent. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2022), “Lent is a 40 day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday.” For many Catholics, especially those that are always “on the go,” Lent can be a challenging time.

The Lenten season commands us to take a step back, recall our Baptismal promises, and reflect. In many ways, it’s a period of silence.

Saint Anthony’s, like Catholic parishes worldwide, changes our liturgical celebration in anticipation of Easter. Personally, I find the starkest contrast between Lent and the rest of the year in the decor of the sanctuary. There is something about walking into a Catholic church and not seeing any floral decorations. It really resonates with me. It forces me to remember the Lenten season. We’re not abandoned, God still loves me, but there is something eerily different. 

So how does the Catholic church coordinate this stark symbolism, and the other symbols that we see and experience throughout the liturgical year?

The answer lies in the “GIRM.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, or GIRM, governs the celebration of Mass in the Roman Rite of our faith. In basic terms, the GIRM tells us how we celebrate the liturgy together as a faith community. It’s a part playbook and part rulebook. The GIRM provides a concrete framework in which parishes throughout the Roman Rite celebrate Mass on a weekly and daily basis. What’s the Biblical rationale? Luke 22:12.

The accompanying introduction to the GIRM (#1) states: “As Christ the Lord was about to celebrate with the disciples the paschal supper in which he instituted the Sacrifice of his Body and Blood, he commanded that a large, furnished upper room be prepared (Lk 22:12). Indeed, the Church has always judged that this command also applied to herself whenever she decided about things related to the disposition of people’s minds, and of places, rites, and texts for the Celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist.”

While adherence to the GIRM essentially operates on what we call in our culture the honor system, the local Bishop is ultimately responsible for enforcing the GIRM, amongst other things, in his diocese.

So what does the GIRM say about Lent?

GIRM #53: It [the Gloria] It is sung or said on Sundays outside Advent and Lent, and also on Solemnities and Feasts, and at particular celebrations of a more solemn character.

GIRM #62: The Alleluia is sung in every time of year other than Lent. The verses are taken from the Lectionary or the Graduale. During Lent, instead of the Alleluia, the Verse before the Gospel as given in the Lectionary is sung. It is also possible to sing another Psalm or Tract, as found in the Graduale.

GIRM #65: On Sundays and Holydays of Obligation there is to be a Homily at every Mass that is celebrated with the people attending, and it may not be omitted without a grave reason. On other days it is recommended, especially on the weekdays of Advent, Lent, and Easter Time, as well as on other festive days and occasions when the people come to church in greater numbers.

GIRM #305: During Lent, it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.

GIRM #313: In Lent, the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.

GIRM #346: The color violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead. The color rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).

Our faith is filled with symbolism. Unfortunately, many faithful Catholics, through no fault of their own, do not recognize the symbolism that is sprinkled throughout our faith. Others might argue that books like the GIRM do nothing to advance the faith, and are archaically rigid. While personal opinions on liturgical practices are common, such as is the case with chant or use of Latin, our faith is very deliberate in its exercise. While the toning down of music and singing is somewhat straightforward and self-explanatory, the use of the color purple is much more abstract.

Because of its cost, the color purple was associated with nobility and royalty in antiquity and Middle Ages. The process to create purple dye was extremely costly and time-consuming. Historically, only the rich could afford it.

Okay, so what’s the connection to Jesus and the Church?

Mark 15:17. Jesus is mocked by the Roman soldiers as “King of the Jews.” This scripture passage reads, “They clothed him in purple and, weaving a crown of thorns, placed it on him.”

Over the centuries, as culture evolved from ancient times, the color purple lost its deep association with nobility. The cost of production also decreased. The color became associated with penance and sorrow for our collective sin that led to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday. As time moves on and culture changes, it’s very easy for this metaphor to be lost; however, the Church through use of the GIRM, strives to keep the symbolism alive.

This Lenten season, I invite you to fully experience the traditional Lenten fast with all of your senses. From the visual to the aural, our faith does an amazing job of weaving praise, penance, prayer, and thanks together with catechesis and evangelization.