By Rev. Samuel Torvend
The Lent of my childhood was devoted to a sustained reflection on the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth -- forty days which drew us toward the Holy Cross of Good Friday. Indeed, forty days of thinking about the crucifixion seemed to balance fifty days of Easter rejoicing. Truth be told, such a focus during Lent emerged in the late Middle Ages (1350-1500) when European Christians desperately wanted to know that God shared with them the terrible suffering of the Black Plague and its ensuing social chaos. This intense focus on the suffering of Jesus seemed a source of solace for many. God is not aloof from our pain and bewilderment. God is with us in our suffering. Indeed, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel cries out in his death, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Is that not how many medieval Christians experienced life?
In the twentieth century, Christians began to see Lent in a new light, one that was recovered from the early church (50-600). Rather than focusing on human depravity and the terrible “price” of Jesus’ death, early Christians saw the Forty Days as a time of intense preparation for the Three Days: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday/Resurrection Sunday. That is, they experienced Lent as a journey leading to the celebration of Christ’s dying and rising in the community of faith. Indeed, the Forty Days focused on the community’s preparation of people who would experience the dying and rising of baptism at the Easter Vigil and during the Fifty Days of Easter.
Yet the work of preparing those who would “die” to an old way and “rise” to a new way of living in the world prompted early Christians, and now contemporary Christians, to ask challenging questions: How have we ourselves been faithful to the baptismal covenant? What calls out for conversion or renewal in our lives so that we might more clearly and faithfully serve the reign of God among us? If late medieval Christians experienced Lent as a time to reflect on the power of personal sin and its forgiveness in the death of Jesus, early Christians experienced the Forty Days as a communal journey of renewal toward the Holy Washing and the Holy Meal – those places where Christians are born anew in the font and nourished with food and drink for courageous living in the world.
This early Christian emphasis is alive among us today as we consider the Forty Days a retreat – a time set aside – to prepare for Easter’s baptism and its renewal in our lives; a time to reflect seriously and patiently on the flow of God’s grace within us and our world; a time to ask if we might take a risk, a risk in our service to the reign of God’s justice, peace, and joy. During the Forty Days, I return to the questions asked of those about to be baptized and those who intend to renew the baptismal covenant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people? Will you respect the dignity of every human being? I sometimes think that Forty Days are insufficient in length to think about and answer those challenging questions which push Christians from the sacred liturgy into the liturgy of living in the world. Perhaps it is good, then, that we have more than one Lent to return again and again to the questions and the mercy of God which surrounds our Lenten questioning.
Father Samuel Torvend is Associate to the Rector for Adult Formation at St. Paul's.