The Baptismal character of Lent

February 26, 2013

Nearly two weeks into our Lenten journey, many people are now settled into whatever special Lenten practices they may have chosen for themselves. Ash Wednesday and its obligations to fast and abstain from meat, two meatless Fridays, and many communal celebrations of the Stations of the Cross have already passed us by. These traditional practices are an important part of our Catholic identity and are very appropriate ways to observe this special season. In general, these choices are strongly connected to the practice of penance and the three classic penitential practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. This is right and proper since penance is an integral part of the observance of Lent.

Many Catholics, however, may be surprised to learn that the bishops of the world, gathered at the Second Vatican Council, taught that the season of Lent has a dual character. In paragraph 109 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium) we read, "The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the Word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the Paschal Mystery." They go further and state later in that same paragraph, "More use is to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy; some of them, which used to flourish in bygone days, are to be restored as may seem good." What is meant by the baptismal character of Lent and how can the average Catholic incorporate that into his or her personal Lenten journey?

From an historical perspective we do we well to remember that Lent itself was first observed by the catechumens preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. The season of Lent corresponds to the catechumen's period of purification and enlightenment. The restoration of the adult catechumenate following the Second Vatican Council and the promulgation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is therefore not an intrusion of something foreign into the season of Lent, but rather a retrieval of its ancient origin. The Rite of Election which we celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent and the Scrutinies and minor exorcisms scheduled for the third, fourth and fifth Sundays clearly are connected to and anticipate baptism. For the catechumens, the baptismal character of Lent is unmistakable. Their journey, in which they prepare to enter into the Paschal Mystery of Christ's dying and rising through the waters of baptism, points out for the rest of us a way of bringing a baptismal focus into our Lent as well.

We who have already been baptized have already experienced the water of eternal life. But, we do not always live out the dignity of what we have received, or even necessarily consciously think of the transformation accomplished in us. A "baptismal Lent" of the already baptized includes a deliberate self-reminder of the living water and its implications. 

We who have already been baptized have already been enlightened by Christ and have been given the gift of vision to see the world from God's perspective and with God's eyes. But, we do not always look at the world from this perspective, choosing instead to put on different glasses and look through different lenses. A "baptismal Lent" includes a remembrance of the different vision we have been granted and choice to begin to call upon this grace and look at the world differently. 

We who have already been baptized have already been raised out the slavery to sin that leads to death and given new life in the risen Christ. But, we do not always live this new life and do not always turn our backs on the regime of sin. A "baptismal Lent" includes a clear-eyed acknowledgment of those things that bind us and a desire to let the power of Christ's Resurrection bring us to the true freedom of the children of God.

A "baptismal Lent" for those who have already been baptized includes a reflection on the meaning of baptism, the graces already received, the way in which we have blocked the efficacy of those graces through the misuse of our freedom, and a desire to re-enter into the mystery of those graces brought to us through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ. Thus, just as the catechumens are completing their process of initial conversion to Jesus Christ, those who have already been baptized, by reflecting on baptism, engage in the on-going life-long conversion that shapes the life of the Christian disciple ever more closely to the model of Jesus Christ.

Brian Garcia-Luense is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.