LENT – IT’S ALL ABOUT BAPTISM
In the Vatican II document on the liturgy, its presentation on Lent states that the season of Lent has a twofold purpose: first, it both recalls and prepares for baptism, and second, it is a time of penance to prepare the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery (the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus).
Lent as we know it today is the result of the way the church of the first five centuries celebrated the sacrament of baptism. For the first three centuries, the period of fasting for Easter did not exceed a week at most. In fact, in most places in the church, a fast of one or two days was the norm. It was not until the Council of Nicaea in 325 that we hear of a period of fasting that lasted 40 days. By the end of the fourth century, the 40 day fast existed throughout the church.
The purpose of this fast most likely originated as a prescribed fast for those people preparing to receive the sacrament of baptism. In the church of the first five centuries, the Easter vigil was the principle time for baptism with Lent providing a period of final preparation for those who would receive the sacrament.
The time of 40 days was taken from the gospel account of Jesus’ fast of 40 days in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his public ministry. A six-week period was established for the fast but all Sundays were excluded since fasting on the day of the Lord’s resurrection was unthinkable. With Sundays excluded, however, the period of fasting was reduced to 36 days. In the 7th century, Ash Wednesday and the following three days were added to bring the penitential season to 40 days.
The period of preparation for baptism, known as the catechumenate, can be traced back to the 3rd century (c. 215). By this time a complete program had been established to bring people into the Christian community. The catechumenate lasted for about three years and consisted of prayer, fasting, and instruction. At the end of the three-year catechumenate, the candidates were examined to see if they were living a devout life. If they passed the examination, they made the final preparation for baptism at the Easter vigil liturgy. This final preparation was the season of Lent. The normal time for the celebration of baptism was at the Easter vigil which, at that time, lasted all night.
As mentioned earlier, Vatican II reconfirmed that a principle purpose for Lent is the preparation for baptism at the Easter celebration. The changes that have occurred in the season of Lent, the preparation for baptism, and the liturgy of both give proof to this.
All of these restorations are meant to encourage us to see Lent as not only a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but also an important time for the preparation and celebration of baptism at Easter. Also, on Easter Sunday we celebrate not only Jesus’ resurrection to new life but also our own participation in Jesus’ new life through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism should be an important part of our Lenten preparation as well as our Easter celebration.
Fr. Mark Kenney, S.M.