First Sunday of Lent, 2024
The season of Lent, the season in which we find ourselves now, was a relatively late development within the Christian Church. Although now a common practice in Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox churches, the season emerged out of an earlier practice in the Church whereby people seeking to be baptized and received into the Body of Christ were prepared for the great Easter feast.
The early Church was quite serious about how it received and welcomed persons seeking to walk in the way of Jesus. In fact, it wasn't as easy to become a Christian as it is today. Persons longing to participate in the Way, as Christianity was known then, had to spend a great deal of time studying the scriptures and learning the Christian way of life. While early inquirers were allowed to participate in part of the Liturgy, they could only do so by standing just outside of the Church and only up to the end of the Liturgy of the Word with the sermon. After the sermon, the candidates for baptism would be dismissed by the bishop and instructed to study the faith they wished to receive.
As the great Easter feast drew near, the candidates would embrace a strict habit of prayer, penance, and fasting in the weeks leading up to the feast. As they grew more deeply in their faith, the candidates would receive the two symbols of faith, the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayers. Eventually, at the Easter Vigil the candidates -- or, as the early Church called them, catechumens -- would be plunged into the waters of the Baptism font and anointed with chrism as a sign of their new identity as Christians. They would also participate and receive for the first time the Eucharist during the Great Vigil of Easter.
The preparation of catechumens for Baptism at Easter remained common practice until about 5th or 6th centuries when Christianity became the more familiar religious practice in the Greco-Roman world. The tradition slowly transformed into what we now know as Lent, a time for all Christian people to prepare for the celebration of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter. All Christian people would join together in abstaining from certain foods and practices, and fast on Wednesday and Fridays, as well as the days of Holy Week. People were also encouraged to renew their commitment to works of mercy (social justice) and to participation in the prayer and liturgical life of the Church. These practices continue to this day.
However, hints of the earlier practice remained. If you listen closely to the Sunday readings, you will notice certain themes emerging from the texts. For example, the first Sunday of Lent often focuses on Baptism, as we heard in the scripture readings today. This is a remnant of the early Church's tradition whereby candidates for baptism would reflect and consider the deeper meaning of the sacrament on this particular Sunday.
While many of us have long been practising Christians, Lent can still be a good time for us to renew our commitment to prayer, study of scripture, and serving others. It is a perfect period for us to renew our relationships with God, neighbour, and creation. As such, all of us are called to embrace the season of Lent as a time of renewal.
Fr. Don Beyers
Priest and Pastor