The way the liturgical year is arranged, as well as the liturgical seasons themselves, is ingenious. The way Lent is structured, in particular, illustrates how well the Church understands human nature and how to give subtle encouragement throughout the season so we don’t lose hope.
Lent (for Roman Catholics) is the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, exclusive of Sundays. You wind up with six Sundays during that stretch, with the seventh being Easter itself. Six weeks is a fairly long time to practice fasting and self-denial and can seem overwhelming if you look at it as one giant chunk of time. Break it down into two week periods, though, and things are really manageable. Case in point:
The Gospel for the second Sunday of Lent is always the Transfiguration, regardless of which reading cycle we’re in. To recap, shortly before His passion, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John aside and goes up a mountain to pray. There He is transfigured into his glory, and met by Moses and Elijah. The Apostles are encouraged by the sight, and want to stay there basking in the glory. The transfiguration ends, and Jesus cautions them not to tell what they saw, but yet they take encouragement from it. Likewise, we are reminded of what comes at the end of Lent: the glory of the Resurrection, and are encouraged to redouble our efforts at self denial so we can fully experience the joy of Easter, and everlasting glory.
Fast forward two more weeks, and we’re at Laetare Sunday, from the introit–Rejoice, Jerusalem. This is the mid-point in Lent, and traditionally Lenten discipline is relaxed a little: flowers can appear on the altar, the organ gets a chance to play solo, rather than just as a backing for singing, and the priest has the option to wear rose [don’t call it pink, though]. The Dominicans writing in their online journal, Dominicana, have a good explanation of why Laetare Sunday matters. It’s well worth a read (as is about 99 percent of what you find there). Again, a couple of weeks after the last bit of encouragement, we get another liturgical reminder of what’s coming, and a shot in the arm to pick up our personal sacrifices again.
From this point, Lent starts to get heavier and heavier: Statues begin to be covered in the fifth week of Lent, and the readings point more and more directly at the coming Crucifixion. Once we hit the sixth week, it’s Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. Palm Sunday has its own ebb and flow, starting with the triumphant procession into Jerusalem, culminating in the Passion narrative for the Gospel. Yet, again, the Church gives us the emotional encouragement we need right before we head into Holy Week. It’s like that last mile marker in a race–you know the end is coming soon, but you still have to keep pushing to get there.
There’s one additional bit of encouragement we get during Lent, the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25. That day we celebrate Christ’s incarnation, and, again, Lenten discipline can be relaxed–we even get the Gloria back during mass for that day. Also, depending on where you are, St. Joseph’s day (March 19) can also be a day to take a pause during Lent. It’s big, of course, in Italy, but in Trinidad and Tobago they told us that in the old days you wouldn’t hear Calypso during Lent except for on St. Joseph’s day.
We’re humans, and the Church recognizes that we need a bit of encouragement to get through the marathon of Lent without giving up hope. That’s why we have a mixture of readings, liturgical signs, and cultural practices that help us along the way so that we don’t get bogged down in the length of Lent, but rather can make it through our personal penances and sacrifices to share in the glory of Easter in this world, and, we hope, in the world to come.