Pastor's Corner: Lent 2021 - perhaps more than you may want to know
Last updated 2/12/2021 at 7:41am
The Greater Havre Area Ministerial Association attempts to have one of its members write an article for the Religion page of the Havre Daily News each Friday, and I received the honor for producing this week's article. This year, Lent begins next Wednesday, Feb. 17, Ash Wednesday so perhaps it might be a good idea to write a bit about the origin of Lent and its purpose.
For those of the Roman Catholic faith, Lent is a tradition we grew up with, as did many of the mainline Protestant faith traditions, but for some other Christian faith traditions it is not a common practice to observe Lent and in fact it may be something they have not even heard of. So perhaps it might be a good idea to provide some background of Lenten practice - scriptural and traditional - as well as some theology.
Lent is to be a time of repentance, purification and enlightenment so we can grow more completely in our relationship with God. I guess it is safe to say all our life should be focused on this endeavor, but experience shows that we tend to get lax and need to set aside certain times to refocus and redirect our efforts to grow closer to God. So, our Roman Catholic Church has set aside these 40 days - about 40 days - of Lent to help us in this process.
Lent has its origins within the Apostolic time of the early church. If we look at the words "purification" and "enlightenment" we can begin to recognize how the early church came to develop this time called Lent. As people were hearing the Good News, they wanted to become a part of the Christian community so they could enter more deeply into a relationship with Jesus. To facilitate this the early church, using the teachings of Jesus as they were being handed on by the Apostles, asked the people to enter a time of prayer, reflection, and study to help them prepare to make a profession of faith to God and the church in the Sacrament of Baptism. Because of the importance of the resurrection of Jesus, Easter Sunday began to be accepted as the most meaningful time for these people to be baptized and become members of the Body of Christ - the church.
As the process of formation for these people wishing to become Christians began to develop it became evident that each of them - as is true for us today - had to be willing to leave behind certain ways of being or attitudes that might be sinful. Thus, the word "purification" began to be applied to the time leading to admittance to baptism. If we look in the Old Testament, we see that there were many times that the number 40 took on special meaning for the people of Israel. Noah and 40 days and nights of rain to purify the earth of the sinful people. Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years until purification of the sinful people had taken place. Even in the life of Jesus, there was the number 40 used for Jesus' 40 days in the desert ending in his temptation by the Devil. To continue with the importance of the number 40, the early church set aside the 40 days before the celebration of Easter to provide a special time of purification and enlightenment for those who were choosing to join the church at Easter. Even today, for people who are choosing to join the Catholic Church through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, this 40 days of Lent is used as a special time of final formation and preparation.
There is also the word "repentance" that finds special meaning in the Lenten experience. This also finds its roots in the Apostolic period of the early church. For many reasons people in the early church would find themselves in a broken and sin-filled relationship with the church. I guess that still happens today, but in the early church the Sacrament of Reconciliation had a much different look than it has today. Consequently, reconciliation with the church the Body of Christ at that time looked much different than it does now.
The process for reconciling with the church was called Public Penance. This required the sinner who wished to reconcile with the church would go to the bishop or apostle and confess his or her sins. Then the sinner at the next gathering of the community for Sunday worship would have to confess his or her sin to the entire community. Then the sinner would enter into a period of repentance during which they would commit all of their time to the service of the community of believers. Again, drawing on Old Testament scripture, the penitent would be marked with ashes and also wear sackcloth during this period of repentance. This time would usually begin to come to its conclusion 40 days prior to the celebration of Easter, with the one repenting focusing on the need to purify themselves through intense prayer, fasting and giving of alms. Then they would be formally forgiven and restored to full unity with the rest of the believers at the Easter celebration.
The process of formation and reformation mentioned above was a very public process that involved the entire Christian community. When the Christian community saw the benefits for those who experienced the 40 days of repentance, purification and enlightenment they wanted to enter into a similar process to help themselves grow in their relationship with God and God's people. As a result, the season of Lent began to be established and become a common practice for the Body of Christ.
As mentioned above, this year, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17. You may notice many of us marked with ashes on our foreheads; this is a symbol of our desire to forgo our sinful lives and begin to focus more intently on our relationship with God and God's people. Lent is not just about giving something up. Lent is a time for each of us to examine our lives and determine where we need to repent, how we might come to refocus our lives in relationship with Jesus and how we might better serve God's people. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the Lenten terms that assist us in this process. Prayer is conversation with God in Scripture, quiet time and reflection with others. Fasting is more than giving up something. It is an examination of the way we are living and choosing to remove those things that separate us from God and God's people. Alms-giving is giving of our time, talent and treasure in an attempt to build up God's kingdom here and now, it also helps us to reprioritize our lives so our relationship with God becomes our primary focus in life.
Deacon Tim Maroney
St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic Church