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Understanding Lent



Lent is a challenging journey - not least because it tangles together so many vital themes of our faith. Repentance, reconciliation and renewal nudge against initiation and catechesis, which rest under symbols such as the cross, the ashes and the palm branches, and all are caught up in our acts of self-denial, prayer and almsgiving. There is a depth to Lent that is inexhaustible - which is just as well because we make this journey every year. It can be easy to get jaded with the Lenten journey, and see it just as a time of "giving something up and stations of the cross", whereas the richness of this season demands exploration.


It is the Paschal Mystery that ties the whole of Lent, Holy Week and Easter together. This mystery of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection is not just a passive, immobile event of our history. It is a vibrant "now" of life and salvation, because each of us has the opportunity to be part of that passion, death and resurrection by virtue of our baptism. In baptism, we descend into the tomb with Christ, so as to rise with him in glory. Our baptism makes the mysteries of Holy Week a part of our "today". This is why Holy Week, and indeed the whole of Lent, are not just about a tremendously moving story from the past - it is about MY salvation, here and now. When Christ on the cross pours out his life as the offering of the New and Eternal Covenant, he offers himself as the sacrifice of the Covenant that I now live in. His Paschal Mystery is the doorway through which I enter into a living relationship with God in the family of the Church.


For some of us, the moment when we became part of the Paschal Mystery of Christ came at the beginning of our lives, when we were baptised as infants - something that we look back to. For others, it is still to come, as they prepare for Initiation into the Mystery of Christ through baptism at the Easter Vigil. Whether we look backwards or forwards to this key moment of our personal initiation into the Paschal Mystery, Lent is a time of preparation - preparation for baptism, or preparation for the renewal of baptism. The cross and passion of Our Lord is not an alien theme - it is through the cross we have been saved, through the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ that we have access to the mystery of life in His dying and rising. Neither are the other themes of Lent alien to this mystery of our Baptism - since it is by prayer, fasting and almsgiving, by our celebration of reconciliation, by our more intense reflection on our faith that we seek to return to our first innocence, when in the water of the font we were born into the dying and rising of Christ. The grace of God, at work within both the one preparing for baptism and the one looking back on a baptism that happened many years ago, seeks to create in us anew the vibrancy of new life in Christ.




Both on Sundays and weekdays these themes spring forth from the scriptures and prayers of the Liturgy - this is especially true of the Sundays of Year A, which present passages that have been read in Lent for many hundreds of years. The Year A readings will always be used if there are candidates in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and are always available for each of the cycles - which tells us something of their importance to this season. The pattern of Gospel Readings is as follows:


Sunday 1 - Prelude: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (his 40 days and 40 nights = our 40 days and 40 nights)

Sunday 2 - Interlude - the Transfiguration: the sustaining promise of glory

Sunday 3 - Initiation 1: the Man Born Blind: only in Christ can we truly see our way through life

Sunday 4 - Initiation 2: the Woman at the Well: we look forward to the water of baptism, which quenches every thirst

Sunday 5 - Initiation 3: Lazarus: in Christ all can find resurrection and life


Both the celebration of Lent and preaching during the Season should look at this pattern, and try and see the whole journey from the First Sunday all the way through to Easter Sunday as a single item: we proclaim what we are doing (first Sunday) and where we are going (second Sunday); then we focus on how Christ teaches, inspires and enlightens us (third Sunday); how He gives us baptism (fourth Sunday) and therefore eternal life (fifth Sunday). It would not be unsuitable to invite the whole congregation to begin to reflect on their baptism from the very beginning of Lent: to think of the innocence and purity of ourselves newly (re-)born, so often tarnished and spoiled by sin, but (thanks to the immeasurable generosity of Divine Compassion) capable of being reclaimed.


From the very beginning of the Season, there should be a huge catechetical arrow pointing to the font, and the renewal of Baptismal Promises at Easter. And perhaps it is the cross of Jesus that is the arrow pointing to this renewal: in him we received life, and in him we receive the renewal of that life.