Monday, February 23, 2009

History of Lent

The Arise office thought the following may be helpful for you.

History of Lent
Lent as we know it, has at its roots in the celebration of Easter. Easter was the only
celebration during the first three centuries of Christianity. The Edict of Milan (313 CE),
the “first globalization process” making the Catholic Church the official Church of the
Empire brought multitudes of pagans (or gentiles) into the Catholic Church. The Church
experienced a severe challenge in transmitting to the new converts the true meaning of
belonging. Before the Edict of Milan, there were only “house” churches, the community
was quite small and hidden because of the persecutions they endured. Sts Athanasius
and Augustine, the Church Fathers, wrote much about how to help catechize this new
influx of people. It was very important to help them understand and value the impact
conversion would have on them. In their teaching and preaching the emphasis for these
new followers of The Way was:
† The Paschal Mystery of Jesus which remains the centerpiece of our faith
As the Jews prepared for the Passover, it became necessary for the
Christian community to prepare these new converts to understand the
significance of the Paschal Mystery and the Passover of Jesus.
† Lent and Holy week eventually become the ritualized time for this preparation.
Jesus’ forty days in the desert served as the structure for this time of
† Readings and symbols took on a significant role in the preparation and
celebration. The readings were developed over the centuries. The Gospel of
Matthew became the most popular but the gospel of John also is used and has a
very significant place in the celebration of Lent. Symbols such as: ashes, light,
water, oil, and the practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving (Jewish
spirituality) remain important into our own day.
The Christian community played an important role. The only way to know if people
were ready to be baptized was through the companionship with the community. These
relationships guaranteed that the people understood the challenge they were
Lent began as a retreat for the catechumenate, a time of preparation for their coming
into the church at Easter. Lent pointed toward Easter. The catechumens had been
learning about Jesus over a period of years and as the time for their reception into the
community of believers approached they more intensely began to ready themselves
with prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They were turning from a former way of living
toward Christ.
Easter Vigil began on Holy Thursday and ended on Easter Sunday. In the darkness,
those to be received into the church would be taken to living water, a river or lake and
be immersed. They would be held under the water three separate times and as they
came up gasping for air, would be asked, “Do you believe in God, the Father, do you
believe in Jesus his Son, and do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” Going down into the
water was a symbol of their dying to a former way of life and rising to a new life in
As they came out of the water (naked) they would be clothed in a white garment. In
Baptism their sins were forgiven; hence the white garment symbolizing the purity and
wholeness of their new status as loved and saved children of God.
“A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from
your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Ez. 36: 26
They would then be brought into the gathered community. It was still night and dark. In
the abundance of candle light, the story of salvation would be re‐told from Genesis to
Paul’s letter to the Romans. The entire ritual was an experience from death to life.
The catechumens would not have been told ahead of time about these symbols and
their use in the ritual. It was meant to shock them into an overwhelming experience of
the love and lavishness of God to whom they were turning over their lives.
We recognize these elements as we experience them in the Easter Vigil each year.
Every Lent we again take the journey with our catechumens and hopefully renew our
own journey toward God and away from anything that distracts us from that

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