Monday, March 2, 2020

Mark's thoughts: Lent - repentance, discipline and catechesis

Lent lasts forty days.  It’s not surprising that the Church settled on a forty day period. After all, forty days is a common time period associated with important events in the Bible.  Moses was on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights while he was receiving the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 24:18).  After God’s victory over Baal, Elijah fled from Queen Jezebel and traveled for forty days and forty nights in order to reach the same mountain (also known as Mt. Horeb; 1 Kings 19:8).  Jesus had fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights when the devil tempted Him (Matthew 4:2).  After the resurrection, our Lord instructed the apostles for forty days before He ascended (Acts 1:3).

The forty day length of Lent indicates that the Church has recognized Lent as an important time in her life.  It is a time that prepares us to observe the dramatic events of our salvation during Holy Week.  On Ash Wednesday, February 26, we enter into the season of Lent.  During the next forty days of the season (Sundays are not counted as part of Lent itself) we will prepare to observe our Lord’s suffering and death on Good Friday and to rejoice in His resurrection on Easter.

The theme of repentance is central to Ash Wednesday, and this emphasis continues throughout the season of Lent.  We confess our sins and turn to God for forgiveness as we prepare to remember Jesus’ death on the cross that has won this forgiveness for us.  Yet repentance is about more than simply admitting our sin so that we can receive forgiveness from God.  In his preaching of repentance, John the Baptist said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).  Repentance also means that we strive to turn away from that we have confessed. 

Lent is thus a time of spiritual discipline as we strive to shape and form our lives in ways that avoid sin.  St. Paul described this to the Corinthians using the metaphor of athletics:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
One practice that disciplines the body and has a long and ancient connection with Lent is fasting. In the Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday Jesus says:
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
The practice of fasting disciplines the body, yet this is done in order to devote the time a person would have spent eating to the reading of Scripture and prayer. Fasting can be done in different ways such as eating breakfast, but not lunch, and eating food again at dinner.  Lunch then becomes a time of feeding on God’s Word and the response of prayer.

Lent is also associated with an emphasis on growth and instruction in the faith.  In the early Church, Lent was the time when catechumens were instructed as they prepared to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.  This emphasis on catechesis (instruction) has continued in the life of the Church.  The Lutheran church of the Reformation used Lent as a time for catechetical sermons – for sermons that continued instruction about key elements of the Christian faith.

Lent is a time when we seek to grow in our understanding of the faith.  Reviewing the Small Catechism is an excellent way to start.  Better still is a reading of the Large Catechism.  This work provides a more in depth treatment of the material in the Small Catechism and much of it places emphasis on how we are to live as Christians. Those who use the Treasury of Daily Prayer will find that the end of the section for each day is entitled “Lenten Catechesis” and contains a series of excerpts from the Large Catechism.

Lent is a time when we prepare to rejoice in the triumph of Easter.  May this Lenten season be one of repentance, discipline and catechesis for us as we prepare to observe our Lord’s death for us and celebrate His resurrection from the dead.


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