Ash Wednesday: What is Lent?

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Wednesday 17, February 2010 | Category:  

In a recent online newsletter from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Father Dave Foxen, M.S.C. talked about the two main traditions of Lent:

“Perhaps the one that sets the tone for many of us is what we might call the penitential tradition. During the first centuries of the church, people who were aware of having committed serious sin would do public penance during Lent. They were obliged to stand outside the church and ask the members of the community for food and prayer. At the end of Lent they would be given reconciliation and allowed to rejoin the community in the celebration of the Eucharist. Even after the public celebration of the sacrament of Penance had ceased, the penitential character of Lent continued, with a focus on sinfulness and doing penance. The ashes on Ash Wednesday come from this tradition.

“The other tradition is even older and has a more positive emphasis. This is the tradition of Lent that developed around those who were preparing for the sacraments of Christian initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. The 40 days before Easter were the time of their final preparation, just as we see today for those in the RCIA program. It was a time of anticipation and hope. The emphasis was on the great themes of the gospel in which Christ is seen as the source of Living Water and eternal life, the Light taking away spiritual blindness, and raising the dead to life. Lent is the time for conversion as the preparation to experience death to sin in Christ and resurrection to new life, as we experienced in Baptism. Lent looks directly to Easter.

“In solidarity with the catechumens, the members of the community are invited to recall their own initiation and reflect on these themes in their own lives. This call to ongoing conversion sets the tone for Lent. We remember that repentance calls us to more than sorrow for particular faults or failings; we are challenged to conversion, that is, to embrace a new fundamental attitude or change of heart. This change of heart begins with our realization of Christ’s love, as shown in the gospel images mentioned above (from the Cycle A readings for the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent), and creates a vision of our life in Christ consistent with our Baptism. That is reflected nicely in the words we hear when receiving ashes at the beginning of Lent: 'Repent and believe in the gospel.'

“Our Catholic tradition of Lent is formed from both the baptismal and penitential traditions. . . . Let it be a time of renewal looking toward the meaning of Easter in your life.”

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