Long ago and far away I was frequently engaged as a speaker for pastors’ retreats and conferences. Once I was invited to speak on Lent to a large group. I began by saying “From one angle you should have to go through Lent only once.” This woke people up.
It is true: from one angle Lent only needs to happen once. That’s if we see it and use it as a time for training in Christian faith that leads to entry into the church. In the early church, you studied for a period of one to three years, depending on where you lived. At the end you were received into the church through baptism, anointing, and first communion. In time, the practice broke down for obvious reasons: most people came into the church through baptism as children, and the training was given after they became members.
When the threat of persecution ended, many people flocked into the church and brought their children with them. Children had in any case been baptized from earliest times, but from the Fourth
Century on, the baptism of children became the standard.
Fasting was initially observed from Holy Thursday through Holy Saturday, then expanded to all of Holy Week, and only later did the whole period from the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday in the West, Forgiveness Sunday in the East) become set aside as a period of fasting, most likely under the influence of monasteries. Mardi Gras – also known as Fastnacht and Shrove Tuesday – was called Carnival because you said “farewell to meat,” which in Latin is carni vale.
Orthodox Christians observe strict fasting during Lent, everyone else much less so. Churches have tried with mixed success to reinstitute Lent as a time of teaching for entry into the faith. Repentance, therefore, seems to be the main Lenten theme that survives for many, if not most, Christian people.
We pray at Vespers every Saturday night, “That we may spend the remaining time of our lives in peace and repentance.” I’ve often remarked about this petition in particular. It’s a powerful notion and an even more powerful way of life. We dedicate ourselves to nonviolence; we say with Jesus that violence stops at our bodies and minds and hearts, and we plan to live that way, even if we stumble and fall and have to try again. We join peacefulness with repentance and together the two provide a basis for a way of life.
The theme of repentance – the one we associate most with Lent – was part of the original practice, because of course you had to turn aside from your errant ways and clean up your life before you entered the church as member. Originally subservient to the overall theme of study for entry, with time repentance took center stage.
Repentance means more than feeling sorry for your sins and transgressions. It means to be constantly revising your life. It begins with the mind; repentance means, at its core, to change your mind. Simply put, if you are walking away from God, to repent means to come to your senses, turn around, and start walking in the right direction. The model is the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel.
To come to your senses, you pay attention to what’s happening in and around you. You wake up! You realize that something is wrong in your heart and you need to fix it to move toward wholeness. From this angle, then, Lent is constantly with us because there’s never a time when we can cease from the revision of our lives.
published 06 March 09