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Lenten Customs

Baptism Is the Key

by Rev. Lawrence E. Mick

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.

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Ashes

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.

Blessed palms

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.

Triduum rituals

Lent comes to an end before the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. That liturgy begins the Triduum, the great Three Days that celebrate the central mystery of our faith. Triduum rituals invite us all to baptismal renewal, par excellence. Here are some examples.

Washing of Feet: After the homily on Holy Thursday, we imitate our master in the washing of feet. This ritual reminds us that our baptismal commitment means we are to be servants of one another. In the time of St. Ambrose in Milan, those who were baptized also had their feet washed, because of Jesus' words to Peter: "Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed" (Jn 13:10). Many scholars have seen a baptismal reference in those words.

Veneration of the Cross: As part of our observance of Good Friday, we venerate the cross on which Christ died. The veneration challenges us to be willing to accept the cross, too, for it is the only way to resurrection. Through Baptism, we shared in Christ's death that we might come to new life. Every year we are called to deepen our identification with his cross and resurrection.

Waters of Baptism: The core of our celebration of the Easter Vigil is the Baptism of the elect. As we share in their joy on this holy night, we are all called to renew our own baptismal promises, to live in the joy of life in the Risen One. Lent comes to its fulfillment around the waters of the font.

 

Rediscovering Baptism

When I was a child, Lent was all about self-denial, suffering and the death of Christ in bloody agony on the cross.
    When the Second Vatican Council issued its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963, the bishops called for the renewal of the season of Lent.

The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for Baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence....Hence, more use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy....The same is to apply to the penitential elements. It is important to impress on the minds of the faithful not only the social consequences of sin but also that essence of the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offense against God... (# 109).

   The Council's reference to the baptismal character of Lent seemed strange to most of us at the time. We had not been trained to link Baptism and Lent in our minds or in our devotional practices. Yet Lent is fundamentally baptismal in its origins and its meaning.

 

Lawrence E. Mick is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds a master's degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame. He is author of over 500 articles in various publications. His latest book is
I Like Being in Parish Ministry: Presider (Twenty-Third Publications).

Next: God's Banquet of Love (Richard Rohr, O.F.M.)

 

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