“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan,
and was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil.”
It was customary in the early Church to baptize converts during the celebration of the Paschal Feast (i.e., ‘Pascha,’ later called ‘Easter’). Already in the second century, as Saint Justin Martyr described, the church in Rome prepared for this celebration with teaching, prayer, and fasting: “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.” This pre-Easter practice of teaching, prayer, and fasting for the support of converts and for the renewal of the faithful developed in different ways in different parts of the world, probably from ancient Jewish practice.
This practice evolved over the centuries into the symbolic forty-day season of Lent that the Catholic Church keeps today. The symbolism of forty days is obviously biblical, a patterning of corporate Christian life after the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert and after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Roughly speaking, after the celebration of the baptism of Jesus during Epiphany, the church follows Jesus, at the behest of the Spirit, into the wilderness to be tested and purified—all for the work of redemption. Soon too, in the Church, Lent became a time for the restoration of sinners through confession and penance. So the Church embraces this season of Lent in order to restore those estranged from God and the Church and to prepare for the great and saving drama of Holy Week, for it is in this holiest of weeks at the end of Lent that together we find ourselves in the Jesus who suffered, died, and rose again for us.
Probably more than anything else, the Lenten sermons of Saint Leo the Great, in the fifth century, helped form the spiritual ideal of Lent for the entire Church. “But when these days,” he said, “which are especially marked out for the mystery of human redemption and immediately precede the Paschal Feast, come around, we are bound to prepare ourselves more diligently with pious purification.” For Saint Leo, Lent was an opportunity for Christians to be restored to the likeness of God, so that we come “to the most holy of all feasts free from all turmoil.”
Have a blessed Lent!
Fr. Joshua J. Whitfield