When I was in college at Loyola University Chicago, a friend whom I hadn't seen in a while told me that he had stopped attending Mass regularly. He then said, "With Lent coming up, I'm going to start going back." Half joking I ask him, "If you haven't been going to church, then how did you know Lent was coming?" He replied back with a similar joking tone, "I still read the bulletin!"
Several weeks later on a Friday in Lent, I was at the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie with two college friends who were also Catholic. While we were getting something to eat at the food court, I surprised to see that my friends (who similar to me attended Catholic grade schools and high schools) were ordering items that had meat. When I asked them about it, it was as if I was the only one in the entire world who actually followed the Lenten observances.
What is it about Lent that captivates, yet is so polarizing? Whether you are attending Mass regularly or not, there's something about Lent that gets our attention, and people tend to fall to either one side or the other- either they do their best to take Lent seriously and take on the Lenten observances, or they know Lent is happening around them and could care less to partake.
Regardless of which side people fall on, you might find them in church on Ash Wednesday. It's one of the most attended days of the year next to Christmas and Easter, and it isn't even a holy day of obligation. It's not on the same date every year, there's no associated holiday retail sales, yet people still seem to know when it is. Even the evening news will have a lot of coverage of people going to church for Ash Wednesday. So what is it that makes people drawn to churches on that day, to the point where additional liturgies are scheduled and priests are on standby to give out ashes?
If I had to make a guess, it's our humanity. Whether Lent is just someone's Ash Wednesday attendance, the full 40 day observance, or somewhere in between, each of us has a need to recognize that we are the created and that we owe something to the Creator for our shortcomings, for not being all that we were intended to be. Somehow we know this, and at least once a year we have a chance to acknowledge it.
How we participate in the Lent is a reflection of how we handle that acknowledgement. Many people try to embrace the disciplines, even doing more than expected. Others don't see any need to even try; perhaps with no desire to compare who they really are to who God wants them to be. Don't get me wrong- people who don't fast or abstain aren't out to be bad people. Depending on how formed their conscious is, threatening eternal damnation for eating a burger on Friday or for going to an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet on Ash Wednesday is probably a little much. But one thing is for sure, how Catholics respond to Lenten practices is a sign of where they are on their faith journey, and shows how seriously they take it.
Regardless of where people are, we all need to support each other. If you're one take the Lenten disciplines seriously, then support others (especially people who don't) with humble encouragement. If you don't take the Lenten disciplines seriously, then at least be supportive of the people who do. What's harder than being a Christian? Being around one during Lent.
Here are the specifics of the Lenten disciplines for Latin rite Catholics:
According to Canon Law (specifically Canons 1251-1253), Catholics age 14 and older are to abstain from meat on Fridays unless the day is a solemnity (the Annunciation and St Joseph are two solemnities that occasionally fall on a Friday in Lent). Catholics beginning their 16th year are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If you live in the USA, the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has a more precise observance for the fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday: age 18 to 60.
Some last tidbits about Lent:
The Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes the afternoon of Holy Thursday. Holy Thursday afternoon through the Easter Vigil is considered the Easter Triduum, which is really a liturgical season of its own.
You'll notice a few minor changes in the liturgy during this time. The Gloria will be omitted, with the exception of St Joseph (March 19), the Annunciation (usually March 25, transferred to April 8 in 2012) and the Chrism Mass. Alleluia is not said/sung from Ash Wednesday until the gospel acclamation at the Easter Vigil. The liturgical color is violet, even on memorials of saints. The only exceptions are the solemnities (which are white), Laetare Sunday (rose), Palm Sunday (red), and the Chrism Mass (white). It is custom to lessen liturgical decorations and music is generally simplified during Lent.