Lent is nearly upon us, which here in New Orleans means a wondrous procession of humanity clothed in green, gold and purple jubilantly celebrating Carnival – carne vale, a farewell to meat – as Ash Wednesday beckons an exchange of the joy of the feast for the joy of the fast.
Lent is a season that developed around the last and most intensive phase of preparation for those men and women who were journeying toward the Easter waters of baptism. Especially in those early centuries of Christianity, the reception of baptism was risky business as it bound you to a profession of faith that stood in dangerous opposition to some of the Roman Empire’s most cherished beliefs and practices. Being a friend of Jesus could make you an enemy of Caesar.
One practical effect of this risk had was insuring that the process of preparing the un-baptized for full initiation – what we now call RCIA – served as a form of “boot camp” wherein catechumens underwent lengthy (up to three years in length) and rigorous formation that included long hours of instruction, rigorous fasting, renunciation of pagan practices, minor exorcisms, a disciplined regimen of daily prayer, along with a robust commitment to deeds of mercy and the practice of uniquely Christian virtues that often set a person of faith at odds with the world around them.
The idea? At the end of this stretch of preparation for baptism, a catechumen would be prepared to demonstrate the will for martyrdom, fully aware that dying with Christ in the waters of baptism could lead one to a violent death in the lion’s jaw. Hence, the whole panoply of ascetical practices catechumens and Christians engaged in were meant to set them free to face with bold serenity the unyielding demands of discipleship and the high cost of love.
Grace in those days was costly grace, freely given by God and lavishly spent by Christians.
As sociologist Rodney Stark wryly put it, “There were few lukewarm Christians because the risk of faith was too high.”
Lent for All
Then in 313 A.D. Christianity was legalized, the emperors became Christian, the persecutions ended and subsequent mass-conversions of convenience led to the pandemic of mediocrity.
The Church eventually, in her liturgical logic, extended to the whole Church this pre-Easter call for intensive conversion and Lent was born.
In Lent, it’s as if the Church is calling out to all of us who have been baptized, with the very voice of Jesus himself,
Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first (Rev 2:4-5).
Lent comes, for those of us “who have once been enlightened and tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the Holy Spirit and tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5-6), as a time to pause, repent and return to an attitude of stunned amazement that we have — gasp! — been made stewards of such awesome mysteries. Lent is a time to stir up the joy of our “first love,” making us fearless and free in living with bold confidence the everlasting Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As you pray over what special spiritual discipline to take on, ask God to show you where you have grown tepid or lazy or lax; where your freedom to love God and others has been constricted by unhealthy attachments, addictions, habits; what in your life steals your joy, robs you of your time for God. Reflect on what practices would help facilitate breaking free and detaching from what holds you back from soaring.
Sit with God in silence at some point, ask Him and see what arises in your mind and heart.