If you were to open a missal for the older form of the Roman Rite for any day in Lent, you will find an intriguing note. Today, for example, “Station at St Mary Major” indicates that the ancient Roman “Station” liturgy takes place in that church on this day. There will be another church tomorrow, and another the day after and so on, in a long series stretching to Easter. In the earliest days of the Roman Church, the faithful would gather at one church, imaginatively called the collectum, where they would all walk in procession, singing the litany of the saints to the Station church of the day where the pope himself would celebrate Mass. There they commemorated the saints, kept the ember days, and prayed and sang. The whole business takes its name from their destination — the statio, a name it shares with the guard duty of a Roman soldier, which came to mean a fast, from sunset until the ninth hour the following day. The ancient Christians took their fasting and prayer seriously — so seriously that they saw it to be of equal importance to those soldiers, walking the walls of the ancient City, keeping the enemy at bay. But it was no bleak penance. This most ancient of Lenten customs had forward motion, it had a trajectory, it was going somewhere — and we can learn a lot from it.
We may not (sadly) be able to be in Rome this Lent, but there should be something stational about our Lenten penance too. We should be watchful in prayer, vigilant, ready for spiritual action. We should approach our Lenten fast not only with commitment but also a kind of enthusiasm. If we cannot be on a physical daily pilgrimage around the churches of Rome, we can ensure our Lent is a pilgrimage of the heart, wherever we are, heading towards Easter day when our new habits will be formed and virtues grown-into, ready to meet the Lord’s resurrection.
But, of course, if we are to reach its end, every journey requires some food for the way. It is no coincidence that what happened as the high point of the statio was the Mass, the bread from heaven, given as food to wayfaring man below, and just as the Eucharist was the food for the station pilgrims, so it should be the nourishment that fuels our Lenten discipline too. Our Lenten eyes are, understandably cast towards Calvary, to that moment of sorrow and sacrifice which, whilst it wrought our salvation, meant the suffering of the Lord for our sake. But it is the love which runs to the core of that sacrifice which is our sustenance on this journey, it is that love that transforms us, and it is that love Himself which we receive, truly present in the Blessed Eucharist.
So while we fast from earthly food, and Netflix, from Deliveroo and alcohol, may the absence of these earthly delights teach us to cling more firmly to that true food for our journey, that more lasting nourishment, the very One who gave himself for us.