Today we enter into the season of Lent, but what does that mean, especially in this very unsettled time?
We all have ideas and memories – something that speaks to us of this season. Most people, even those who have drifted from regular practice of the faith, feel drawn to “do something for Lent.” But because the season has changed focus over the centuries, some remembered practices can actually distract from the central message. And getting back to basics might help us experience this season as a support in difficult times.
In the early Church, Baptism was an adult event – individuals chose to become Christian because they were moved by the person and message of Jesus and the example of his followers. It was a risky decision – remember that Christians were persecuted then.
Baptism was celebrated only once each year, at the Easter Vigil, which highlighted its connection to the death and resurrection of Jesus. And so Easter was everyone’s anniversary of Baptism.
In those days people explored and studied the way of Christianity for several months or several years. And 40 days before Easter, following mutual discernment, the bishop named the “elect”, those to be baptized this Easter. At that point their study stopped and they entered the period of purification and enlightenment, a path of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to prepare spiritually for Baptism.
It is easy to imagine the reflection of the community as the elect eagerly prepared for their Baptism – just as each member had a year or two or ten previously. And many would notice that with time they might have lost some enthusiasm, begun to cut corners spiritually, fallen into bad habits, and so on.
So the whole community started to join the elect in their prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – in preparation to renew their own Baptismal promises on the anniversary of their Baptism. And this became Lent – the Church’s annual retreat. This is how Lent gets it penitential character – as a community, we challenge ourselves to look inside and to examine our words and actions to see how closely we reflect our faith. Can we say with Saint Paul, “I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me”? (Galatians 2:20)
Beginning in the fourth century when Christianity became legal and infant Baptism became the norm, the Catechumenate disappeared, as did the connection between Baptism and Easter. The call to penance was remembered, but without the anticipation of Baptism, it was no longer “this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed”. (Preface I for Lent)
The Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of the Catechumenate and in 1966 promulgated the new rite. The goal was not only for the formation of those to be baptized but the renewal of the whole Church as we consider how we live and promote the gospel. As a Church we are still discovering what it looks like to keep Lent and celebrate Easter as part of that journey.
For each of us then, our primary focus at the beginning of Lent should be on baptism – even if we don’t remember the event of our baptism, Easter will be an invitation to renew it. And the question as we consider Lent is: would I choose to be baptized this Easter if I could? And if I would, what would help me to be ready to embrace death and resurrection with Jesus and the beginning of a new life?
The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are like a three-legged stool, supporting and leading into one another. We choose practices during Lent that will open us to God’s love and mercy and guide us on the road to discipleship. We might choose something different this year than last year, or different from our neighbor, because where I am and what would renew my life in Christ is different. It might be giving up or it might be doing something extra (or with a new spirit).It might simply be a small shift in the way I look at the world. In any case, it is not what I do that purifies me, but God’s grace. What will open me to that grace, and help me to practice the discipleship to which I am called?