Lent : Preparation for Easter

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.
The catechumenate collapsed when the pattern of initiation changed and it became the norm for infants rather than adults to be baptised. As a consequence, 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”.
On the afternoons of the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Lent, those people preparing for initiation into the Catholic Church at the Easter ceremonies gather with their sponsors, catechists and families at St Stephen’s Cathedral for the Presentation of the Creed. In this ritual, which has been practised from the earliest years of the Church, the 'elect' (as the catechumens are called at this stage of their journey) hear the Archbishop recite to them the great statement of our faith that dates from the Council of Nicea in 325CE. They are asked to commit the Creed to memory and to recite it publicly before professing their faith in accordance with that Creed on the day of their baptism.
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.


Elizabeth Harrington