Ash Wednesday, March 5, began the season of Lent in the life of the Church. The Church entered into a period of preparation as she makes her way towards Holy Week and the celebration of The Resurrection of Our Lord.
Ash Wednesday begins Lent on a very strong note of repentance. In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of repentance (Jonah 3:6; Job 42:6) and mourning (Joshua 7:6). Ashes are also associated with the mortality of death which sin brought into the world, for as God said to Adam after the fall, “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, until you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Through the optional imposition of ashes we visibly demonstrated mourning over our sin as we repented. We were also reminded by the ash and the pastor’s words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” that, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The ash reminded us that the presence of sin in our world and lives leads to death.
This emphasis on repentance goes back into the early centuries of the Church in which the weeks before Easter were part of the process by which repentant sinners were received back into the fellowship of the congregation on Maundy Thursday. This theme of repentance continues to make good sense. As we prepare to observe our Lord’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins, we place renewed emphasis on the need for repentance in our own lives. We examine our lives and confess the sin that is present in them in preparation for the celebration of forgiveness won through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Growing up in the Church, I thought that it was easy to understand why Lent was a time of repentance. However, another aspect of Lent always puzzled me. The mid-week services I attended during Lent made the season seem like a five week long Holy Week or a five week long Good Friday. Sermon series focused on the words of Christ from the cross or the different events of Christ’s passion. Having done that for five weeks, by the time we arrived at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I had to wonder what we were supposed to do as we covered the same ground all over again. Were we supposed to experience the same thing – just now more intensely? Other than the date, how exactly were Maundy Thursday and Good Friday supposed to be different from what we had just been doing for five weeks?
What I have learned is that Lent did not begin as a “five week Holy Week.” Instead, it was the time during which catechumens prepared for entrance into the Church through Holy Baptism at the Vigil of Easter on evening of Holy Saturday. This was not a private process, but instead one which the entire Church witnessed in the Sunday Divine Services during Lent. On the first Sunday in the Lent the catechumens were publicly enrolled to begin the final stage of catechesis and preparation for Holy Baptism. The third, fourth and fifth Sundays in Lent all included rites that were part of this process. This time was a period of intense catechesis for those who were preparing to receive Holy Baptism. At the Vigil of Easter they were baptized and the congregation welcomed the newly baptized into the fellowship of the Sacrament of the Altar.
The whole Church observed this process, and in doing so they were reminded about their own baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:2-5; Colossians 2:12). They were reminded of the faith they had been taught and confessed. They were reminded of the baptismal life to which they had called – a life in which they were to put death sin and live the new life in Christ (Romans 6:4; Colossians 3:1-11).
This reflection was the cause for repentance as they realized the ways they had failed to do this. But it was also an invitation to return to what God had done for them in Holy Baptism. Lent was the opportunity for the Church to walk with the catechumens to baptism, and in doing so, to be renewed in the life of faith.
Lent is still this for us as well. It is the invitation to examine our life in the faith. And it is the opportunity to return to our baptism. It is the opportunity to reflect upon the share we have received in Christ’s death and resurrection through Holy Baptism (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12) and the daily meaning this has for our lives (Romans 6:1-2, 4-11; Colossians 3:1-11). May the Holy Spirit uses the season of Lent this year as a time of spiritual examination and renewal in the baptismal life as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord.