The following is my monthly parish newsletter article entitled, "Understanding Lent."
Many people from both within and without our tradition dislike the season of Lent. People outside our tradition sometimes see Lent as a season of meaningless rituals and vain fasts that do not really edify the Christian walk. Some people even from inside our tradition likewise tend to dislike Lent because they see it as a dour season where all we can talk about is sin, wickedness, and self denial. Both critiques labor under a misunderstanding of what the meaning of the season of Lent really is at its fundamental core. Believe it or not, Lent is primarily about Baptism.
Without Baptism as a foundation, Lent can truly become a shackle of penitential blathering and meaningless rituals based on nothing more that the fact that we have always done it this way. Lent developed in the early centuries from several merging Church traditions. Originally, there was a two day fast before Easter that ultimately was lengthened to 40 days. This fast was deemed necessary in the Early Church because Easter was the central day to bring people into the Church. This was called the Catechumenate process which was an intense process of prayer, fasting, and religious instruction so that people could on Easter morning be united with Christ for the first time in Baptism. Likewise, people who had previously been baptized but had fallen into notorious sin could likewise begin the journey back home. Thus, those wishing to be initiated in Baptism would join the penitents and the whole community in a journey that would bring the whole Christian community together as the Body of Christ on the highest day of the year, Easter.
Many of the rituals and images that we use in this season come from this Baptismal centrality of Lent. The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us that we are mortal are also called to die to sin and rise to new life in Christ. Likewise, the customs of "giving something up" and partaking in spiritual disciplines foreshadow our "giving up" of the old Adam to embrace new life with Christ on Easter. Likewise, the penitential nature calls us to examine ourselves and readjust our lives so that we may like the newly Baptized on Easter, stand as the full children of God that are filled with new life. The Stations of the Cross, the Maundy Thursday, and the Good Friday liturgies all point toward the Baptismal theme of journeying with Christ, as he suffers, dies, enters the tomb, and is resurrected. Baptism, likewise, is the entering into the waters like Jesus entered the tomb. We die and are resurrected with Christ on Easter.
All the themes, images, and motifs in Lent point us not just towards the Cross and the Resurrection, but to our own Baptism. Sometimes in Lent, we lose sight of that Baptismal centrality. We can get lost in the penitence and the fasting and special church events and liturgies. Lent, however, is a season not of finger pointing and God turning us away, but is a a season of God beckoning us nearer and calling us home.
This is what Lent is all about.