By Father Joe Defrancisco
The liturgical season of Lent was introduced in the early centuries of the newly emerging Christian community as a means of preparing adult converts for the celebration of the sacraments of initiation, which included baptism by immersion, final anointing in the Holy Spirit, and culminating in the celebration of Eucharist. The spiritual emphasis of this 40-day period was to focus the life of prayer, meditation and charity on the need for full and personal conversion to the faith, the church and Jesus Christ. This conversion was three-fold: moral conversion, as a mandate to give up pagan and worldly attractions to sin and vice; religious conversion, as an invitation to grow beyond Judaism or prior religious disciplines, in favor of a new covenant sealed in the blood of Christ; and spiritual conversion, as a vow to live and grow in Christian community, fully celebrating the sacramental life, and through the sacraments extending the love, presence and the power of Christian community to embrace the poor, marginalized and victimized of those suffering under Roman rule.
After the peace of Constantine and the work of the Council of Nicea in 325, a free and renewed Christianity introduced a new focus for what would become a “universal” Catholic community. The practice of using Lent as a proximate preparation for baptism continued for another two centuries. Gradually, alongside the catachumens, all Christians were invited to embrace the 40 days of Lent as a means of purification from sin, diminishing or conquering any and all serious obstacles to true growth in love and the Christian spiritual life, as a means of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the paschal mystery — Jesus’ dying and rising to new life. Since Christians were already baptized and living the full sacramental life, the spiritual shift from conversion to interior transformation and purification re-formed the ideals and goals of Lent. Through the re-institution of the Right of Christian Initiation (RCIA) in Vatican II, the theology of these “rites of conversion” strengthened the process of interior spiritual growth, comprehensive catechesis, prayerful support of the local faith community and full immersion into the eucharistic community, the body of Christ. Furthermore, the post-Vatican II church has charged both newly baptized and apostolic parish communities to strengthen full life in the Holy Spirit, sustained evangelization, and eucharistic life that more aggressively addresses the plight of suffering humanity, defined by liberation theologians, bishops and the magisterial proclamations of the past five popes as “preferential option for the poor.”
Now that we have traced the evolution of Lent in relationship to the sacraments of initiation and the universal call to “holiness” in and through the eucharistic community, we should note that it was the theological advances of the Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) that fused the sacramental life of the church and particularly its liturgical rites with the primary mission of the church being the building up the Kingdom of God in peace, justice and charity. Through baptism Christians are anointed and empowered to participate in and minister the “first fruits of Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection. It was Christ’s will that future disciples share in the work of salvation within the whole body of Christ, his church. Within the liturgical life of the church, Christians “are prepared to do the works of justice, grow to the fullness of holiness, so that the completion of the Kingdom of God may be achieved and Jesus the Lord may be all things to all people”(S.C.III, 6). The Council Fathers have outlined a more detailed mandate for the church’s mission for peace and justice in the “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World.” Christian justice is defined as the church’s “solidarity” with and ministry of compassion for the various forms of poverty, suffering, hope-less-ness, abuse and violence found in the full humanity of the world. It is not enough to acknowledge social injustices and violence against humanity, nor propose simple solutions to complex problems. Rather, the church teaches emphatically that Christians are to be Christ’s presence in the face of social, political, moral and economic disintegration by embodying within their lives the healing, reconciling, loving and compassionate heart of Christ. As Christians share in the fullness of Christ’s body through sacraments, the celebration and ritualizing of those sacraments become the graced empowerment for mission to a broken and sinful world.
(Fr. Joseph DeFrancisco, S.T.D., is a professor of theology and pastoral studies at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)