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Lent getting Ready for Easter
Easter is late this year, almost as late as it can be. Celebrating Easter Sunday on 24th April occurs only once in fifty years on average. It could be one day later but that only happens once a century. So Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent, is also much later than usual this year -Wednesday 9th March.
In the early Church the annual feast of Easter was the time when new members were initiated into the Christian community. Those preparing for baptism, known as 'catechumens', fasted for two days beforehand. Gradually this time of preparation lengthened until, by the fourth century, it had become set at 40 days. Augustine explained that the authority of the 40 days comes from the time that Christ spent in the desert and from the fasts of Moses and Elias.
There has been some variation in counting the 40 days over history. Around the fifth century it became established as the period of 40 days before Holy Thursday- not counting Sundays, which are never days of fasting.
At this time it was also given the name 'Lent', from an old English word meaning 'to lengthen' which, because it was the time when the short winter days were gradually growing longer, was the name given to the season we call spring. Spring, of course, is the season when Lent occurs in the northern hemisphere.
As well as the time for catechumens to make their final preparations for initiation, Lent was a period of preparation for penitents who would be reconciled with the Christian community on Holy Thursday. Other members of the church journeyed with the catechumens and penitents during these 40 days through fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
When it became the norm for infants rather than adults to be baptised and the catechumenate collapsed, Lent lost its baptismal focus and became associated almost exclusively with penance. This is why many people associate Lent exclusively with acts of self-denial, like 'giving up' a favourite food or pastime.
The second Vatican council restored the baptismal focus of this season. Paragraph 109 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy describes Lent as being “marked by two themes, the baptismal and penitential” and calls for “more use to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy”.
For those who will be baptised at Easter, Lent is a period of intense preparation called the “Period of Purification and Enlightenment”. In the light of God's word, they examine their lives and ask the entire Christian community to pray that whatever is weak and sinful within them may be eliminated and that whatever is good and holy may be affirmed.
And Lent is a time of purification and enlightenment for all of us as we strive to “rid ourselves of the hidden corruption of evil, and so to share his paschal meal in purity of heart” (Preface of the First Sunday of Lent).
During Lent we are all on a journey as we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery at the Easter Triduum and continue that celebration throughout the 50 days of the joyful Season of Easter.