The key to understanding the meaning of Lent is simple: Baptism. Preparation for Baptism and for renewing baptismal commitment lies at the heart of the season. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has reemphasized the baptismal character of Lent, especially through the restoration of the Catechumenate and its Lenten rituals. Our challenge today is to renew our understanding of this important season of the Church year and to see how we can integrate our personal practices into this renewed perspective.
Why is Baptism so important in our Lenten understanding? Lent as a 40-day season developed in the fourth century from three merging sources. The first was the ancient paschal fast that began as a two-day observance before Easter but was gradually lengthened to 40 days. The second was the catechumenate as a process of preparation for Baptism, including an intense period of preparation for the Sacraments of Initiation to be celebrated at Easter. The third was the Order of Penitents, which was modeled on the catechumenate and sought a second conversion for those who had fallen back into serious sin after Baptism. As the catechumens (candidates for Baptism) entered their final period of preparation for Baptism, the penitents and the rest of the community accompanied them on their journey and prepared to renew their baptismal vows at Easter.
Lent, then, is radically baptismal. In this Update we’ll consider some of the familiar customs of Lent and show how we can renew some of our Lenten customs to bring forth the baptismal theme.
Why do some refer to Easter as Easter and others use Lent or Pentecost and what is the significance of each?
In the Catholic Church, the year is divided into liturgical seasons based on significant events in the life and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ as well as the great Mysteries of our Faith. The Church Year, as it is called, begins with Advent, which is celebrated as four weeks of preparation before Christmas.
Catholics are called to live liturgically by actually entering into the Church year. Such an approach to life and worship is not simply about re-enacting the great events of Salvation history – or what is called the “Paschal Mystery”, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is an invitation to all the baptized, living their lives now in the Church which is the Body of Christ and thus to enter into the deeper meaning of our faith; to experience our Salvation as an ongoing process as we cooperate with grace and allow the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead, to change us from within making us more like Him.
Easter, where we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, is preceded by Lent, a season of self-examination, fasting and penance in preparation for our Easter Day observance. So Lent is a 40 period prior to Easter Day. Also, beginning the Sunday before Easter we have Holy Week, with Palm Sunday (also called Passion Sunday), Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
Easter Day actually begins on Saturday evening with the Easter Vigil. The celebration of the Vigil is in keeping with the Jewish tradition of celebrating the day from sundown to sundown. Thus, the Saturday evening Vigil Mass is a Sunday Mass.
Easter is also a season that lasts 50 days and ends on Pentecost Sunday, which is an observance based on the second chapter of the Book of Acts where the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles. This day is considered the birthday of the Church.
Why do we put ash on our forehead?
Ashes are applied to our forehead in the sign of the cross as the words, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return” are spoken to us. The other formula which is used, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” emphasizes our call to continual conversion and holiness of life. This act symbolizes our mortality as well as our need for ongoing repentance. It is a reminder that this life is short and merely a foreshadowing of what we shall become through the redemption of Jesus Christ on the cross. The work of our redemption will not be complete until we are raised from the dead, in resurrected bodies like His own and called to the eternal communion of heaven.
Where do the ashes come from?
The ashes for Ash Wednesday normally are made from blessed palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. The ashes are sprinkled with Holy Water and incensed before distribution.
When do I wash the Ashes off my face?
There is no specific instruction on how long ashes are to be worn. You can, in fact, wash them off immediately after the service if you want. Many people choose to wear their ashes for the remainder of the day both as a reminder of their own mortality and as a witness before those around that they are a follower of Christ and are entering into a season of examination and abstinence.
What is Fat Tuesday?
As the Church anticipates the Season of Lent, the evening before Ash Wednesday is called Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. Rich foods are consumed as the faithful prepare for time of fasting, abstinence, confession and penance.
Customs and practices arose for Fat Tuesday where people would empty their pantries of many items restricted during Lent
One of the terms often used with Mardi Gras is carnival. We picture huge public celebrations or parades. Anyone who visits one of the big carnivals held on this day usually bring back stories of self-indulgence and hedonism that make most people blush.
Ironically, carnival comes from the Latin carne vale which means farewell to meat or farewell to flesh indicating the end to certain pleasures has come.
In some parts of the Christian world the commonly used term for the day is Shrove Tuesday. To shrive means to present oneself for confession, penance and absolution. In some early practice, Lent was preceded by Shrovetide the week before Lent. The faithful were called to go to confession during that time in preparation for the Lenten observance.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explanation of Shrovetide includes a sentence from the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes. Translated from Theodulphus by Abbot Aelfric about AD 1000, it reads, “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance].”
What is Pentecost?
Pentecost is a feast day based on the account in the second chapter of the Book of Acts where the Holy Spirit fell on the apostles as they were gathered together in the Upper Room. This is considered the birthday of the Church and the mission to evangelize the whole world.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it as follows: “On the day of Pentecost when the seven weeks of Easter had come to an end, Christ’s Passover is fulfilled in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, manifested, given, and communicated as a divine person: of his fullness, Christ, the Lord, pours out the Spirit in abundance.
“On that day, the Holy Trinity is fully revealed. Since that day, the Kingdom announced by Christ has been open to those who believe in him: in the humility of the flesh and in faith, they already share in the communion of the Holy Trinity. By his coming, which never ceases, the Holy Spirit causes the world to enter into the “last days,” the time of the Church, the Kingdom already inherited though not yet consummated.” (CCC 731,732)
What is the significances of the 40 weekdays before Easter?
The 40 days of Lent, which precedes Easter is based on two Biblical accounts: the 40 years of wilderness wandering by the Israelites and our Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness at which point He was tempted by Satan.
Each year the Church observes Lent where we, like Israel and our Lord, are tested. We participate in abstinence, times of fasting, confession and acts of mercy to strengthen our faith and devotional disciplines. The goal of every Christian is to leave Lent a stronger and more vital person of faith than when we entered.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies and pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (CCC 1438)
Why is Lent observed in only some Christian Churches?
In the Protestant world, particularly among many evangelical denominations and independent churches, the Church Calendar is not observed. The seasons were omitted along with most of the sacraments and the use of liturgy in their approach to faith. These Christians do observe Christmas and Easter and some might even celebrate Pentecost.
When does Lent end?
Lent officially ends on Holy Thursday. That is when the Triduum, great three Days of holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday occur leading to Easter. Easter is not only a day but an Octave (eight day) celebration leading to a Season of the Church, Easter Season, which ends on Pentecost.
Ash Wednesday liturgies are some of the best attended in the entire year. Some people suggest that is just because the Church is giving out something free, but I suspect there are deeper reasons! Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes). They also remind us of our mortality (“remember that you are dust”) and thus of the day when we will stand before God and be judged. This can be linked easily to the death and resurrection motif of Baptism. To prepare well for the day we die, we must die now to sin and rise to new life in Christ. Being marked with ashes at the beginning of Lent indicates our recognition of the need for deeper conversion of our lives during this season of renewal.
Giving something up
For most older Catholics, the first thought that Lent brings to mind is giving something up. In my childhood, the standard was to give up candy, a discipline that found suitable reward in the baskets of sugary treats we received on Easter. Some of us even added to the Easter surplus by saving candy all through Lent, stockpiling what we would have eaten had we not promised to give it up.
Some years ago a friend of mine told me that he had urged his children to move beyond giving up candy to giving up some habit of sin that marked their lives. About halfway through Lent he asked the children how they were doing with their Lenten promise. One of his young sons had promised to give up fighting with his brothers and sisters during Lent. When his father asked him how it was going, the boy replied, “I’m doing pretty good, Dad—but boy, I can’t wait until Easter!”
That response indicates that this boy had only partly understood the purpose of Lenten “giving up.” Lent is about conversion, turning our lives more completely over to Christ and his way of life. That always involves giving up sin in some form. The goal is not just to abstain from sin for the duration of Lent but to root sin out of our lives forever. Conversion means leaving behind an old way of living and acting in order to embrace new life in Christ. For catechumens, Lent is a period intended to bring their initial conversion to completion.
Scrutinies: Examining our lives
The primary way that the Church assists the catechumens (called the elect after the celebration of the Rite of Election on the First Sunday of Lent) in this conversion process during Lent is through the celebration of the rites called Scrutinies. These ritual celebrations on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent are communal prayers celebrated around the elect to strengthen them to overcome the power of sin in their lives and to grow in virtue. To scrutinize something means to examine it closely. The community does not scrutinize the catechumens; the catechumens scrutinize their own lives and allow God to scrutinize them and to heal them.
There is a danger in celebrating the Scrutinies if the community thinks of the elect as the only sinners in our midst who need conversion. All of us are called to continuing conversion throughout our lives, so we join with the elect in scrutinizing our own lives and praying to God for the grace to overcome the power of sin that still infects our hearts.
Many parishes today seek to surface the concrete issues that the elect need to confront; these issues then become the focus of the intercessions during the Scrutinies. Some parishes extend this discernment process to the wider community so that all are called to name the ways that evil continues to prevent them from living the gospel fully. Even if the parish does not do this in an organized way, every Catholic should spend some time reflecting on what obstacles to gospel living exist in his or her own life. Then when the Scrutinies are celebrated, we will all know that the prayers are for us as well as for the elect.
Taking seriously this dynamic of scrutiny and conversion gives us a richer perspective on Lenten “giving up.” What we are to give up more than anything else is sin, which is to say we are to give up whatever keeps us from living out our baptismal promises fully. Along with the elect we all need to approach the season of Lent asking ourselves what needs to change in our lives if we are to live the gospel values that Jesus taught us. Our journey through these forty days should be a movement ever closer to Christ and to the way of life he has exemplified for us.
Scrutinies and Penance
The elect deal with sin through the Scrutinies and through the waters of the font; the already baptized deal with sin through the Sacrament of Penance. The same kind of reflection that enables all members of the community to share in the Scrutinies can lead the baptized to celebrate this Sacrament of Reconciliation to renew their baptismal commitment.
Lent is the primary time for celebrating the Sacrament of Penance, because Lent is the season for baptismal preparation and baptismal renewal. Early Christian teachers called this sacrament “second Baptism,” because it is intended to enable us to start again to live the baptismal life in its fullness. Those who experience the loving mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation should find themselves standing alongside the newly baptized at Easter filled with great joy at the new life God has given all of us.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving
The three traditional pillars of Lenten observance are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The key to renewed appropriation
of these practices is to see their link to baptismal renewal.
Prayer: More time given to prayer during Lent should draw us closer to the Lord. We might pray especially for the grace to live out our baptismal promises more fully. We might pray for the elect who will be baptized at Easter and support their conversion journey by our prayer. We might pray for all those who will celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with us during Lent that they will be truly renewed in their baptismal commitment.
Fasting: Fasting is one of the most ancient practices linked to Lent. In fact, the paschal fast predates Lent as we know it. The early Church fasted intensely for two days before the celebration of the Easter Vigil. This fast was later extended and became a 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter. Vatican II called us to renew the observance of the ancient paschal fast: “…let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind” (Liturgy, # 110).
Fasting is more than a means of developing self-control. It is often an aid to prayer, as the pangs of hunger remind us of our hunger for God. The first reading on the Friday after Ash Wednesday points out another important dimension
of fasting. The prophet Isaiah insists that fasting without changing our behavior is not pleasing to God. “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Is 58:6-7).
Fasting should be linked to our concern for those who are forced to fast by their poverty, those who suffer from the
injustices of our economic and political structures, those who
are in need for any reason. Thus fasting, too, is linked to living out our baptismal promises. By our Baptism, we are charged
with the responsibility of showing Christ’s love to the world, especially to those in need. Fasting can help us realize the suffering that so many people in our world experience every day, and it should lead us to greater efforts to alleviate that suffering.
Abstaining from meat traditionally also linked us to the poor, who could seldom afford meat for their meals. It can do the same today if we remember the purpose of abstinence and embrace it as a spiritual link to those whose diets are sparse and simple. That should be the goal we set for ourselves—a sparse and simple meal. Avoiding meat while eating lobster misses the whole point!
Almsgiving: It should be obvious at this point that almsgiving, the third traditional pillar, is linked to our baptismal commitment in the same way. It is a sign of our care for those in need and an expression of our gratitude for all that God has given to us. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral elements of the Christian way of life we began when we were baptized.
Stations of the Cross
While this devotion certainly has a place in Lent, the overemphasis given to it in the past tended to distort the meaning of the season. Because the stations were prayed publicly throughout the whole season, the impression was given that Lent was primarily about commemorating the passion and death of Christ.
Vatican II strongly endorsed the use of devotions as part of Catholic spirituality, but it also called for their renewal, to harmonize them with the sacred liturgy (see Liturgy #13).
The liturgy of Lent focuses on the passion and death of the Lord only near the end of the season, especially with the proclamation of the Passion on Palm (Passion) Sunday and again on Good Friday. The weekday readings between the Fifth Sunday of Lent and Palm Sunday also point toward the coming Passion, so that might also be an appropriate time to pray the Stations. The earlier weeks of Lent, however, focus much more on Baptism and covenant than on the Passion.
When we do pray the Stations of the Cross, we can also connect them with the baptismal character of Lent if we place the stations themselves in the context of the whole paschal mystery. In Baptism we are plunged into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, and our baptismal commitment includes a willingness to give our life for others as Jesus did. Recalling his passion and death can remind us that we, too, may be called to suffer in order to be faithful to the call of God.
One limitation with the traditional form of the Stations is the absence of the second half of the paschal mystery. The liturgy never focuses on the death of Christ without recalling his resurrection. Some forms of the Stations of the Cross include a 15th station to recall the resurrection as an integral part of the paschal mystery.
Some contemporary forms of the Stations also make clear the link between the sufferings of Christ in the first century and the sufferings of Christ’s body in the world today. Such an approach can help us to recognize and admit the ways that we have failed to live up to our baptismal mission to spread the gospel and manifest the love of Christ to those in need.
As we near the end of Lent, we celebrate Passion (Palm) Sunday. At the beginning of the liturgy, we receive palms in memory of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As a symbol of triumph, the palms point us toward Christ’s resurrection and might remind us of the saints in heaven “wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9). The white robes remind us of baptismal garments, and the palms suggest their triumph over sin and death through the waters of Baptism.