I am a Wisconsin native, and I tend to like the changing of the seasons. There are things that I like about all four of them, even the season of snow and cold. Yet, when we reach mid-February, I have to admit that I get a little impatient with winter. At this time of the year, I begin to yearn for signs of spring — the buds on the trees and the first sprouting plants making their way out of the ground. Spring is the time of new life and new possibilities. It is a season of hope.
The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English word for “lente,” meaning “spring.” “Lente” is derived from the Old English word, “lencten” referring to the lengthening of days in the spring of the year.
The season of Lent developed over time. In the early centuries of the Church, it was a time of intense spiritual preparation for catechumens before their baptism at Easter. Many Church members, already baptized, used the time for their own spiritual preparation for Easter.
By the fourth century, when Christians no longer suffered persecution by the state and Christianity was legalized, Lent developed into a season of 40 days, the length of Jesus’ time of fasting, prayer and temptation in the desert. Once the Church came to the point in which most individuals were baptized as infants, the connection to the preparation of the catechumens faded, and themes of fasting and repentance became dominant.
The liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council and post-conciliar times returned our Lenten focus to baptism, and emphasized that Lent is a time of preparation for entering more fully into the Paschal mystery. The Paschal mystery — the redemption brought about by the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus — is at the heart of the liturgical reform outlined by the Second Vatican Council. The rites were revised to express more clearly the Paschal mystery, ensuring “the full and active participation by all the faithful” in their worship.
The Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy focused on Lent as a time to prepare the faithful for the celebration of the Paschal mystery. Lent helps us to focus more intensely on personal conversion, taking off the old self and putting on Christ.
The two essential elements of Lent consist of preparing for or reflecting on baptism and on doing penance. Penance reminds us of the reality of evil and our need for God’s grace. We receive that grace in baptism, and we renew it through the confession of our sins or reception of the Holy Eucharist.
When St. Paul reflects on baptism, he speaks of rebirth brought about by baptism in the Paschal mystery. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised form the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
Baptism, in a sense, is a direct link to Easter. In baptism, we enter the waters sanctified by Christ’s death in order to die with him. In his resurrection, Christ revealed the new life promised to believers. We emerge from the waters purified, and as St. Paul says, with a “new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:24)
In Sacred Scriptures, the word “repentance” refers to change — a change of mind or heart, a change of disposition or attitude. It is used in reference to sorrow for sin, regret and conversion. In certain passages of the Scriptures, it is made very clear that the outward show of repentance is not enough. What is required is a true conversion, which will show itself in helping the poor and the needy, and in the ending of quarrels: “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.” (Isaiah 58:6) The prophet Joel says, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” (Joel 2:13) Repentance is more than signs. It is about conversion, turning to God, turning to God’s Law, turning to righteousness.
Our Lenten season stands on baptism and penance. New life in Christ begins in baptism, and is reaffirmed at Easter with the renewal of the baptismal vows. We vow to reject Satan, and to believe in God, in His Son, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church and its teachings.
During Lent, of course, we focus on penitential practices based on those named in the Gospel: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The three Lenten pillars aid us in deepening our love for God and neighbor. Prayer, fasting, and works of charity and justice help us on our Lenten journey, which is a life-giving movement toward renewal and rebirth. Sin has marred our baptismal dignity. Lent offers us the opportunity to meet the Lord, receive what he offers, and rise with him from the baptismal waters, renewed and reborn.