“To keep a good Lent means to draw closer to God and one another and to prepare ourselves once again to renew our covenant with God through the reciting of our baptismal vows. Lent is a time to prepare to enter afresh into the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection and our redemption.”
Conversion in the Early Church
In the early Church, Christians often suffered hostility and active persecution by their neighbors. Conversion was not taken lightly, for its repercussions echoed in all circles: family, friends, livelihood, politics and social life. Likewise, the Church needed to clarify the meaning of Christian faith and life so that its members would form a community that could withstand the pressures of an inhospitable environment.
Understanding this need for clarity of faith, the Church required the candidates for baptism, known as catechumens, to undergo a long and rigorous period of training, instruction and scrutiny. The final stage of their preparation came in the last few weeks before Easter when they entered into an especially intense time of fasts and frequent meetings for prayers, instructions, blessings and exorcisms.
Preparation for all Christians
The laity, those who had already entered into the community of the redeemed, also recognized the need for personal preparation for the Easter feast. By the end of the second century, all Christians fasted at least a day or more in preparation for Easter, depending upon the level of their devotion. By the fourth century, it had become customary for devout priests and lay persons to join the catechumens in their more intense fasts, instructions and other preparations.
During this time began the emergence of what is now the traditional number of days to fast before Easter: 40 days, following the biblical witness of Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness, Moses’ 40 days with God on Mount Sinai, and Elijah’s 40 days of wandering as he journeyed to Horeb, the mountain of God.
In the early centuries of the Church, Lent was dedicated in particular not only to the preparation of catechumens for Baptism, but also to the preparation of penitents for reconciliation and re-admittance to the eucharistic assembly of the Church.
The Origins of Ashes
At first, only those doing public penance received ashes on their foreheads to begin their penance (sixth to seventh centuries). By the 10th century, all the faithful began their Lenten observance with the imposition of ashes as a sign of their repentance and mortality.
Thus, Lent traditionally has become a time for fasting, abstinence, corporate and private prayer, self-discipline, serving others, study, reflection and penance. It is a special time for the whole Church to be on a retreat, to take inventory and reexamine priorities, to leave sin and self behind in the love and service of God and our neighbors. To keep a good Lent means to draw closer to God and one another and to prepare ourselves once again to renew our covenant with God through the reciting of our baptismal vows. Lent is a time to prepare to enter afresh into the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection and our redemption.
Living the Good News is a lectionary-based curriculum for all ages published by Morehouse Education Resources, a division of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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