Lent is an invitation to renew our baptisms with penance
Christians are familiar with Lent – the period of forty days leading up to Easter Sunday, which from the earliest times of the Church has been specially designated as a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in preparation of the Church’s celebration of Jesus Christ’s Passion and resurrection.
Lent is, above all, a personal invitation to renew our baptism and return to the Father through penance. At times, amidst the demands of life and our own interior reluctance, we can find ourselves going through Lent without much attention to this invitation. One way to help ourselves to begin this season with an open heart and mind is to remind ourselves of its origin and meaning, but above all, that God himself is at the center of the Lenten call to conversion.
The history of Lent
The Lenten season developed in the Church's early centuries as the result of several factors. First, there was the natural human impulse to prepare for a great feast or celebration by a period of self-denial. Following this impulse, it became customary for early Christians to fast for a day or two before Easter. Over time, the period of fasting was lengthened, and by the time of the Council of Nicaea (325), it had expanded to a period of forty days. A second factor leading to the season of Lent was the catechumenate – the process of formation for the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation and holy communion) – which included a rigorous period of preparation for these sacraments, which would be celebrated at Easter. The third factor was the Order of Penitents, which was modeled on the catechumenate and provided a second opportunity for deeper conversion of heart for those who had sinned seriously after Baptism. The penitents went through a period of penance which ended at Easter. Over time, the rest of the Christian community began to accompany the catechumens (candidates for baptism) and penitents in this period of spiritual preparation.
For a time, the baptismal meaning of Lent was obscured. The Second Vatican Council called for a renewed emphasis on this baptismal aspect, which has been accomplished to a significant degree through the restoration of the catechumenate. The visible preparation of those in the Rite of Christian Initiation reminds the baptized faithful that Lent is a time for the renewal of their own baptismal promises.
Why forty days?
The number forty is significant throughout Scripture as a time of special preparation: before receiving the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex. 34:28); Elijah walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (I Kings 19:8); and finally, Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for forty days and forty nights before beginning his public ministry (Matt. 4:2).
The purpose of fasting
Fasting is a central aspect of the Lenten season. What is the spiritual significance of fasting?
“Christian fasting is revealed in an interdependence between two events in the Bible: the ‘breaking of the fast’ by Adam and Eve; and the ‘keeping of the fast’ by Christ at the beginning of his ministry,” says Rev. Daniel Merz, Associate Director of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship. “Humanity's fall away from God and into sin began with eating. God had proclaimed a fast from the fruit of only one tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17), and Adam and Eve broke it. Fasting is here connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.… Humanity, in Adam and Eve, rejected a life dependent on God alone for one that was dependent rather on ‘bread alone’ (Dt. 8:3; Mt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4) …
“Christ, however, is the new Adam. At the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, we read, ‘When he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he became hungry.’ Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else — when we face the ultimate question: ‘On what does my life depend?’ Satan tempted both Adam and Christ, saying, ‘Eat, for your hunger is proof that you depend entirely on food; that your life is in food.” Adam believed and ate; Christ said, ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ (Mt. 4:4; Lk. 4:4). This liberates us from total dependence on food, on matter, on the world. Thus, for the Christian, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature. In order for fasting to be effective, then, the spirit must be a part of it. Christian fasting is not concerned with losing weight. It is a matter of prayer and the spirit. And because of that, because it is truly a place of the Spirit, true fasting may well lead to temptation, weakness, doubt, and irritation. In other words, it will be a real fight between good and evil, and very likely we shall fail many times in these battles. But the very discovery of the Christian life as ‘fight’ and ‘effort’ is an essential aspect of fasting.”
The Lenten liturgy
The liturgical celebrations of the season of Lent are marked by a certain austerity. The Church, having proclaimed Lent a time of mortification, leads its faithful by example. The priest wears violet vestments, and the altar and tabernacle might also be veiled in violet, which is traditionally the color of penance and solemnity. There is an exception on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Lætare Sunday), when the rubrics allow for the option of using instead rose-colored vestments as a sign of hope that the end of the penitential season draws near. The church is free of flowers during Lent and all adornments are muted. The Gloria is omitted from the Sunday liturgy of the Mass, and the Alleluia falls silent.
During Lent, musical instruments are used only to accompany singing. The Church discourages weddings during this season, and saint feast days are observed with fewer outward signs. By this fast of the senses, the Church prepares the hearts of the faithful for the joyful feast of Easter (the two exceptions to the Lenten liturgical observances are the Solemnities of St. Joseph and the Annunciation).
Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season with a set of readings to guide us through our forty-day journey. God’s call to us in this season is clear: “Return to me with your whole heart: with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12). The Scripture readings at Mass during the rest of Lent follow three main themes: repentance, baptismal renewal, and the redemption of humanity through Jesus’ Passion, death, and resurrection.
Lent isn’t simply about “giving up” something; it is about becoming capable of responding to the gift we have been given in Jesus Christ. “Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1).
By following Jesus’ example, we become capable of such a response. Christ spent forty days in silence and prayer in the desert, communicating with the Father. Imitating him, we should summon the courage to communicate with the Father by our prayer and inner silence. It is necessary that we summon the courage to ask ourselves hard questions: How is God calling me to change this Lent? Where are the nagging pricks of conscience in my life? How do I hear his voice in the depths of my heart?
Some of the practices that help us grow most in our relationship with God during Lent are frequenting daily Mass, praying the Stations of the Cross, making a regular holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, taking time for personal prayer and spiritual reading, and in particular, making a good confession. Any one of these things is a gold mine for conversion if entered into with a sincere heart.
“A clean heart create in me, O God,” says Psalm 51, which is proclaimed during the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. “Give me back the joy of your salvation”: this joy of salvation is what God yearns to give us. This Lent, Jesus calls each of us personally, from the cross, to follow him on the journey which leads to that joy.