Lent prepares us to renew our baptismal promises Print
Seeing with Jesus' Eyes
Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010 -- 1:00 AM

Seeing with Jesus' Eyes by Fr. Donald Lange

Lent is a 40-day season of prayer, fasting, good works, and penance. Lent prepares us to renew our baptismal promises with deep faith at Easter when we celebrate the paschal mystery, the heart of our faith.

In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy it says "Lent disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the Word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the Paschal mystery."

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church it says, "By the solemn 40 days of Lent, the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.''

We enter the desert of Lent by receiving ashes and choosing a penance as signs that we want to turn from sin to conversion to deeper life in Christ. The ashes remind us that our body upon which we lavish so much attention will turn to dust and the soul which we often ignore will live forever.

Lent is the season when Catholics seem to respond best to parish devotions, programs, and penance. Lent invites us to seriously ask, "How can we live our baptismal promises better? How are we doing in our quest for the prize of heaven?"

History of Lent

In the early Church, Lent was a period of intense spiritual and liturgical preparation for catechumens before they were baptized at Easter. Today at the Easter vigil, catechumens receive the sacraments of Baptism (unless they are already validly baptized), Confirmation, and Eucharist. Now the person is a fully initiated member of the Catholic Church.

Around the fourth century, penitents looking for forgiveness and re-entry into the community began dressing in sackcloth and sprinkling ashes on themselves to show their desire to repent. On Holy Thursday in a moving ceremony, they were forgiven and reconciled by the bishop.

Gradually the custom of giving ashes to everyone on Ash Wednesday arose from imitation of the practice of wearing ashes by public penitents. This signals our commitment to do penance and renew our baptismal promises.

Prayer deepens relationship with God

During Lent we are encouraged to choose a penance that will help us to grow spiritually and renew our baptismal promises at Easter. The Ash Wednesday Gospel lists three forms of penance.

The first is prayer. Prayer deepens our relationship with God and helps us to discern and do God's will like Mary did. We might ask, "How do we pray? When do we pray? Should we pray more?"

If we feel the need, we can improve our prayer environment by creating a prayer space, adding a crucifix, candle, or holy picture. We might choose to belong to a prayer group, pray for the sick and suffering, participate in Lenten devotions, or pray the rosary.

Prayer can prepare us to participate more fully, consciously, and actively in Mass, the source and summit of the Christian life. In John 6:54, it states, "Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise them up on the last day."

Fasting is about the soul

Fasting is another penance the Ash Wednesday Gospel recommends. Each year Bishop Robert C. Morlino publishes the ages of Catholics who are bound by the Lenten regulations of fast and abstinence.

Fast and abstinence are different from dieting. Dieting is about the body. Fasting is about the soul. It can open us to a more disciplined and compassionate Christ-like way of living and free us from the power of a consumer culture. Fasting and mortification should be united with Christ's suffering in his passion and death.

If we discern the need, we can fast from gossip, poisonous remarks, negativity, resentment, and other sins and faults that hurt others, ourselves, and our Christian witness.

During Lent we are encouraged to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation which helps us to fast from sin. Young children don't have to fast, but they can be encouraged to give up something.

Almsgiving imitates Jesus

Almsgiving is the third penance mentioned in the Ash Wednesday Gospel. We can contribute to help Haiti recover from the earthquake or volunteer at a homeless shelter. We can sponsor a third world child, take non-perishable goods to food pantries, or invite shut-ins to lunch.

Unselfish almsgiving imitates the generosity of Jesus who, in his paschal mystery, thought not of himself, but of us.

We can also pray the family rosary, attend Mass or devotions together, or see a spiritual movie. As a family, we can participate in Lenten devotions and Stations of the Cross, volunteer at homeless shelters, pray for abortion victims, visit the sick, or enrich our families in other ways. The Holy Spirit will help us to choose other penances if we ask.

May Lent help us to renew our baptismal promises at Easter, participate more fully in Mass, and help us to grow into a more Christ-like person whom Jesus offers the eternal joys of heaven.

Fr. Donald Lange is a pastor emeritus of the Diocese of Madison.