Lent: New Life or Guilt?

by Bishop Mary Keldermans

What do you think of when you think of the season of Lent? Gloom? No meat? Giving up candy, soda or ice cream? Crowns of thorns? Stations of the Cross?  Lent used to be that way for me until I started to teach our Catholic Faith to folks who wanted to join the Church. I saw the stars in their eyes as they learned about our faith; I was caught up in their enthusiasm as they readied themselves to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter.   Lent was anything but doom and gloom and in fact, it became my favorite liturgical season.

I was in a conversation with a priest many years ago when I mentioned Lent was my favorite liturgical season. “Lent?” he exploded, “are you crazy?” I had a few good retorts on my tongue but instead of using them I explained why I loved Lent. Inside the church the sacraments were in sight for the catechumens and candidates and their excitement was palpable.  Outside of church Mother Nature was coming back to life with beautiful flowers and green grass. What wasn’t to love?

Here is a tiny snippet of Church history to show how Lent developed. It arose in the early church as the period of time when the community gathered to pray for and with the catechumens as they prepared for baptism at Easter. This time was all about prayer, baptism and conversion of lives.

The preparation time for baptism slowly disappeared from the church in no small part because of the way theology and liturgy began to change in the Middle Ages. God came to be taught as an aloof God, a grand God, one who looked down with bemusement at human foibles.  We folks in the pews were deemed “unworthy” of such a grand and glorious God and were saddled with guilt and shame for being such imperfect people. The clergy though, seemed to be exempt from all the unworthiness. Go figure.

To underscore the unworthiness, altars were moved from being among the people to the back wall of the church, the farthest away from the people they could be. Communion rails were put up separate the people from the holiness of the sanctuary. The priest prayed the prayers of the Mass not only with his back to the people but in a language they couldn’t understand. Bells had to be rung to let people know when something important was happening i.e. the Consecration.

People began to feel so unworthy they stopped receiving communion. The Pope had to intervene and declare that all the baptized had to receive communion at least once a year during the Easter season. That came to be known as one’s Easter duty. The season of Lent, however put that unworthiness on steroids. While people were still baptized at Easter the focus of Lent was mainly on the passion and death of Jesus who, it was taught, was sent to earth by an angry God to be tortured and crucified because of human sinfulness. God would/could only be placated by the suffering and gruesome death of Jesus. Holy Moly.  Guilt? Shame? You bet.  

A mere 500 years later (the Church is a slow mover) Vatican II stepped in and made the work of liturgy the work of the People of God, not just the priest and the hierarchy. Rites and rituals were updated. Altars were turned around to face the people; the language was translated from Latin to the vernacular of the people.  With the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) the church returned the baptismal character to Lent. But not all dioceses or parishes got that memo. There are still some who have retained the Catholic guilt and unworthiness factor.

At Holy Family we have come to know Lent as a cousin of Advent, a time of preparation for a celebration. Lent is merely a quieter time; a time for introspection. There are no alleluias, no Gloria’s and the music is more muted. Babies aren’t baptized during Lent unless it is urgent. Weddings aren’t celebrated because it is a quieter time.  The only time the passion of Jesus is mentioned in our Scripture readings is on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Lent is not nor should it be a 40 day funeral for Jesus.

So beginning on this Ash Wednesday, let’s be aware of what is happening all around us. New life is springing forth, crocuses are already in bloom, daffodils are starting to poke their heads out of the dirt, trees will soon be budding and the grass will start to turn green. We are one with creation as we explore what might need to change in our lives so we can experience the fullness, the beauty of God’s life in us. No guilt. No unworthiness. Just beauty. Looking at Lent through this lens, do you think it could become a favorite season of yours, too?