The roots of Lent are in the period of fasting that would prepare new Christians for Baptism.
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture,
“Zeal for your house will consume me.” —John 2:17
Did you know that our word “Lent” comes from the Old English word for “springtime.” This gives us a wonderful insight into what the days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday are all about: a season when faith and the virtues of the Christian life grow and flower within our hearts and souls. But, as Ash Wednesday approaches each year, one of the first questions we Catholics ask is “What should I give up for Lent?” And it’s a fair question because, as we know, penance is a part of Lent.
So, how do you or your family and friends answer this question? Do you give up social media? Television? Chocolate or another favorite food? Soft drinks, coffee, or alcohol? While it’s true that taking a break from any of those can be good for us, we also have to ask ourselves if these sacrifices are really helping us to grow in our lives as Christians. Lent isn’t only about doing penance. So, we have to think of other opportunities for “good works” during the Lenten Season.
The traditional works of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting help us focus our attention on what is most important in life. And, if we can think of our Lenten penance as a “good work” to be taken on and shift our focus away from what we “give up,” we will find that our Lenten prayer and devotions will be richer and more fruitful.
But there’s more at stake because, as we reflect on all of this, we remember that Lent isn’t an end in itself. The purpose of the season of Lent is to help us prepare for Easter when we will renew our baptismal commitment.
In the first centuries after Jesus, those individuals who wanted to become Christian spent months and even years preparing for Baptism, which almost always took place in a special ceremony on the night before Easter. That night was anticipated by a time of prayer and fasting so that the soon-to-be Christians would be as ready as they could be to receive the gifts of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. This is the origin of Lent. (Our contemporary process of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is built around this model of initiation.) Those Christians who were already baptized would also pray and fast as they prepared to renew their own commitment to Christ by renewing their baptismal promises on Easter Sunday.