In the early Church, the main purpose of Lent was to prepare the ‘catechumen’, i.e., the newly converted Christian, for baptism which at that time was performed during the Paschal liturgy. But even when the Church rarely baptized adults and the institution of the catechumenate disappeared, the basic meaning of Lent remained the same.
For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore Easter is our return every year to our own baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return—the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own ‘passage’ or ‘pascha’ into the new life in Christ.
If Lenten worship preserves even today its catechetical and baptismal character, it is not as ‘archeological’ remains of the past, but as something valid and essential for us. For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.
A journey, a pilgrimage! Yes, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see—far, far away—the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our Lenten effort a ‘spiritual spring’. The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. “Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man.’
Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent
Reflection – Well, I have discovered the sure-fire way to drive readers away from the blog: have a series of blog posts that are explicitly about Lent, in the 3rd week of Lent! It’s a good thing I really don’t care too much about traffic and stats on the blog, since it’s been downright amusing to see how the numbers fell this week.
Ah yes… Lent... still Lent, is it? How much longer…? Oh. And you’re going to talk about it all week?.. Oh. Well, see you later.
Many people around this time (myself most assuredly included) hit the wall pretty hard right about now, particularly if one is truly trying to do some form of serious fast or mortification. And perhaps it is a point in Lent where we just don’t want to hear about it anymore!
But for those few of youse who are sticking around, it is good to renew and refresh the vision, isn’t it? Even if we find perseverance in Lent a strain, the vision of Lent should never leave us. It is mercy that carries us through the desert to the joy of the Paschal feast, not our own non-existent moral and spiritual perfection.
We carry within us the reality of Easter, of course. It is not that somehow we go into a period where Christ is no longer risen, where the kingdom has no longer dawned in us, where we are returned to some kind of pre-baptismal state. Of course not – Christ is risen, eternally glorious, and we carry his risen life in our redeemed flesh continually.
It is only this that empowers us to visit the dry and barren lands of our hearts, the places of temptation and failure, refusal and rebellion. The devastating reality that we have fled from the risen Christ and his joy into paths of our own making, and that the realities of Easter victory and shameful defeat, eternal light and life and crushing darkness and death, mercy and sin all co-exist within our mortal frames.
In Lent we do journey through this bleak landscape for a season, but it is not so as to collapse into shame and guilt and despondency. It is, rather, to meet Christ there. The victory of Jesus is absolute in the world, and there is nothing—no sin, no failure, no darkness, no horrific tragedy—that the risen Christ has not gone out to meet, in the world and in our hearts.
And so Lent is sad, but it is bright. Lent is dark, but light in dawning. Lent is dry, but there are subterranean springs flowing throughout its desert landscapes. Lent is hard, but the hardness is already being met by the tender love of God in Christ. He is risen, and Lent is bearing us into His resurrection. Let it do so, and let us not lose heart in the doing of it.