February 24, 2022
Repent and Be Faithful to the Gospel
On Wednesday, March 2, 2022, we begin the Lenten season. We mark it by the reception of ashes on our foreheads, an ancient symbol of both penance and our complete dependence upon God in the face of human frailty and mortality.
The reception of ashes helps us focus more deeply on entering into the life, death and resurrection of Christ (the Paschal Mystery) over the next forty days. These ashes come from the burning of the blessed Palms of the previous Palm Sunday. Signed upon our foreheads we are reminded of our complete reliance upon God. We are called to follow Christ’s example and give ourselves away, for others, in care and love.
The second essential focus of Lent is baptism and preparation for baptism through fasting and prayer was the focal point of the days of preparation leading to the Easter Vigil in the early Church, the only day that baptism occurred. Holy Saturday was kept as a day of fast in preparation for the baptisms that would occur that night at the Vigil. In time days of fasting and preparation were slowly added in front of that day, eventually evolving into the forty days we are familiar with today. It was understood that these forty days would be days of intense preparation by those who had already committed years of their lives readying themselves for baptism. Preparing for the life altering reality of dying and rising in Christ was the central focus of this Lenten time.
Over time, the baptismal emphasis is lost as adult baptism fades and a new emphasis on public penitents comes to the fore. Vatican II restores the balance between the two with a two-fold emphasis on baptism and penance during the season of Lent with the Conciliar reforms and the establishment of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The documents of VCII are clear that the solitary focus on penance in the season of Lent is reformed so that “the two elements which are especially characteristic of Lent – the recalling of baptism or the preparation for it, and penance – should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and in liturgical catechesis. It is by means of them that the Church prepares the faithful for the celebration of Easter” (SC 109).
Ash Wednesday continues to recall the penitential aspect of the season, while the baptismal emphasis is present through scripture (the use of Cycle A readings), and the structures and focus on the rites of the RCIA. These rites include the Rite of Sending, the Rite of Election, and the scrutinies (three Sundays in Lent when the Elect are present).
As we celebrate this season of Lent we keep in mind this two-fold structure of the season: baptism and penance. And even though this year we won’t have Elect preparing for baptism, we are asked to remember our own baptism and what that commitment means in our lives, for our actions and relationships. How do we live out the commitment made in the waters of rebirth to live for Christ? Reflecting upon the penitential nature of the season could demand of us actions that respond to this baptismal reflection, shifting the Lenten focus from solely “giving things up” to doing more to live our baptism more fully.