Question: Years ago Lent focused on repentance for sins and meditating on the passion of Christ. Today Lent seems to be about many things. Can you sort out the meanings of Lent?
Frank Answers: Yes, Lent has accumulated many meanings and purposes over the centuries and this can be confusing to pastors as well as to lay people. The word cloud above this post illustrates Lent’s multiple messages. The season has become like a spiritual smorgasbord. We pick and choose because we can’t do everything that’s recommended. So maybe at most we will try to attend church more regularly, even some midweek services, give up meat or some other food on Fridays, collect alms in a coin bank, and thereby make an effort at observing the notable duties of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in Matthew 6 that we hear proclaimed on Ash Wednesday. If we derive some benefit from this, well and good. Even this amount of “good works” puts us in a counter cultural stance and therefore demonstrates some repentance or turning around in our direction of life, at least for forty days.
I’m not knocking this, but I want to alert us to the basic problem with our modern observance of Lent: a lack of focus for our practices. First let’s go back to the origins of the season, which are also complex.
The idea of a Christian observance of a forty-day preparation for the pascha or passover of Christ from death to life, coinciding with the preparation of catechumens for their Baptism at the paschal vigil, became nearly universal only after the Council of Nicea. This season, otherwise known as Quadragesima or Tessarakoste (forty days) was created by bringing together several pre-Nicene practices in different churches.
The emergence of an annual paschal celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ already in the second century was accompanied by two days of fasting along with those preparing for Baptism. This was eventually extended to a whole week—the six days between Palm Sunday and Easter. Hence, the origin of Holy Week even before the fourth century.
It became a nearly universal practice to to have a three-week period of preparation of catechumens for their baptism, which did not always climax at Pascha (Easter). This was also observed in Rome and is reflected in the three Masses for the scrutinies in the later Roman-Gallican Gelasian Sacramentary on the Sundays of Lent III, IV, and V.
If this three week catechumenal period with its fasting occurred before Pascha (Easter), it was in addition to the fasting during Holy Week. Some Eastern traditions have continued to maintain a distinction between the fasting of Lent and the fasting of Holy Week.
The Egyptian Church centered in Alexandria observed a forty day fast after the Epiphany following the chronology of its favorite Gospel of Mark in which after Jesus’ baptism he was led into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and was there tempted by the devil. Eventually the preparation of candidates for baptism occurred during this forty day post-Epiphany fast, but baptisms were not on Easter. They were often celebrated on what became Lazarus Saturday. The Coptic and Ethiopian Churches, in resisting Byzantine imperialism, to this day do not celebrate baptisms between Palm Sunday and Pentecost.
However, the Alexandrian Church had pioneered this forty day fast in imitation of Jesus’ fast and used it as the time of preparation of catechumens for baptism. It was adopted by other Churches but was changed from a post-Epiphany to a pre-Paschal fast, including in the Roman Church.
In addition, in the Roman Church this forty day fast (which included Saturdays—the West Syrian-Byzantine Churches did not fast on the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day; hence they have a longer Lent) correlated the preparation of the public penitents for reconciliation on the morning of Maundy Thursday (so that they could participate in the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper) with the preparation of the catechumens for their baptism at the Paschal Vigil. Thus, between the fourth and sixth centuries Lent acquired its catechumenal and penitential character.
After the sixth century the orders of catechumens and penitents waned with the increase in infant baptisms and private penance. Lacking public catechumens and public penitents as the focus of church life during Lent, all the faithful returned, in effect, to the catechumenate and embraced penitential disciplines, receiving the ashes of the penitent on Ash Wednesday. During the Middle Ages, and especially in the Reformation and Post-Reformation periods, the focus of Holy Week on the passion of Christ was pushed back into Lent and basically became the emphasis in Lenten devotions and preaching. The practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (our works of penitence) remained, although the focus on Baptism and penance didn’t.
With the retrieval of the adult catechumenate and the rites of Christian initiation of adults (RCIA), the catechumens placed at the center of church life and liturgy could once again give Lent a concrete focus as the whole congregation of the faithful accompanies them to their baptism and to the renewal of our own baptism at the Easter Vigil. Our hymnals, unfortunately, have very few hymns, at least in the “Lent” sections, that relate to the catechumenate or the renewal of baptism. The cross and passion of Christ still dominate the hymn selections for Lent.
From the early days of the church the faithful accompanied the candidates by fasting along with them (already in Didache 7:4 at the end of the first century). So the main focus of Lent is Baptism. The main practice of Lent is fasting. The passion of Christ comes into focus during Holy Week. In our current practice we demonstrate this by changing the liturgical color of vestments and paraments from earthen or purple to scarlet. But even so the focus is on baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ at the Easter Vigil by baptizing candidates prepared in the catechumenate during lent and/or the whole congregation renewing their baptism. Baptism involves a whole change of life from an orientation to this world to an orientation toward the life of the world to come. That change is what repentance is all about. Confessing our sins? Yes. But also changing our habits as a sign of our repentance. Hence the notable duties of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving come into play as appropriate penitential disciplines signifying repentance. The meanings and practices of Lent really do all tie together.
Pastor Frank Senn