Many years ago one of my seminary professors pointed out that the church’s liturgical year moves in a spiral, not circular, fashion. The celebration of major feasts and seasons is not simply a replay of the previous year’s observances because we ourselves are always at a different point in life.
To paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s classic novel, A Christmas Carol, we are not the people we were from one year to the next. Whatever the circumstances of life, we can and do change, for the better or for the worse.
Another professor of mine once asked the class what we first thought of when we heard the word “Lent.” The usual suspects came rapidly to the surface, with penance, self-denial and fasting in the lead. But our teacher was not satisfied. When it became obvious that the correct answer was not forthcoming, he almost shouted the word, “spring.”
The Middle English word for Lent, lenten, means springtime. Lent, like spring itself, signals a time of rebirth, particularly at Easter.
On Ash Wednesday, blessed ashes were applied to the forehead as a sign of our need for penance. Although two prayer-formulae are now allowed for the distribution of ashes, the more traditional one is “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
In the fourth century, when public penance for serious sins was common, penitents dressed in sackcloth and were sprinkled with ashes to show their repentance. By the 11th century it had become customary simply to receive ashes on the forehead.
One has the impression that active involvement in the Lenten preparation for Easter has lessened considerably in recent years. Is it the case perhaps that relatively few Catholics are even aware of the direct connection between Lent and Easter, except those actually preparing for entrance into the church at the Easter Vigil and those assisting with their preparations?
Lent itself has assumed various forms over the centuries — limited at first to two or three days of fasting, then to Holy Week, then to three weeks and finally reaching the modern span of 40 days, patterned after the Lord’s fasting for 40 days in the desert. The connection between Lent and Easter, however, was always an integral part of the church’s rituals.
Lent, therefore, is not only, or even primarily, a time for sackcloth and ashes, with gloomy dispositions to match. It is ideally still a season of anticipation of the joy of the Resurrection and its promise of rebirth into eternal life.
But such words as these may be little more than religious boiler-plate, if that has not happened already. Good preachers and insightful spiritual writers have sometimes pointed out that the great enemy of faith is not outright rejection, but indifference. When we have been “inoculated” with pious words once too often, the linguistic “serum” loses it effect.
As we take personal stock during the season of Lent and look back across the Lenten landscape from the heights of Easter, we need to ask ourselves whether that “serum” is still potent or, to change the metaphor and put the matter more biblically, whether the salt has lost its savor (Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
The penance of the season, in preparation for Easter, is not for individual Christians alone, but for church officials, too — at every level. The ongoing reform of the church is one of the necessary conditions for the authentic renewal of the spirit.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.