Grant, almighty God,
through the yearly observances of holy Lent,
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.
This very ancient prayer was found in the earliest Sacramentaries, but was lost to the Church by the time printing presses churned out the first liturgical books in the sixteenth century. When it was rediscovered by scholars in the last century, this collect was restored to the place it once held on the first Sunday of Lent.
Attributed by some to Pope Leo the Great, the prayer contains a curious phrase in the second line, making reference to "the sacramentum of holy Lent." For us, the phrase "the Sacrament of Lent" seems very strange. However, the "observances of holy Lent" to which we are called do have a certain sacramental character to them.
What is a Sacrament? I remember the answer from my Baltimore Catechism: "A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."
The observances of holy Lent are just such outward signs: for when I fast from food and from vengeance and from anger and from hate, I grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ: Christ who graciously showers me with mercy and peace and love.
The observances of holy Lent are outward signs. When I go to the Stations of the Cross on Friday night, or to confession on Saturday afternoon, when I pray an extra fifteen minutes at the end of each day, I grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ: Christ who fills my heart with his hope and strength and a clear vision of his love for me.
The observances of holy Lent are outward signs. When I go down to the food pantry and stock shelves with boxes of canned goods, or serve supper at the soup kitchen, or buy a coat for the shivering guy who lives on the street, I grow in understanding of the riches hidden in Christ: Christ who will judge me on the last day by how much I have loved him in the poor and the forgotten and the lonely and the afraid.
Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving all draw us closer to Christ. And the closer we are drawn to him, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the more our minds are opened to understand the riches he has to share with us. (Cf. Luke 24:44)