By Ray Almanza
What is the meaning of Lent? It is very likely that the answer to this question, for most people, will have something to do with penance.
While penance is a major focus, Lent has a twofold character and it may benefit our evangelization efforts to highlight the other aspect as well. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy tells us that we become more disposed to celebrate the paschal mystery “primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance…” (SC, 109) And we are instructed to bring this twofold character into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis.
Baptism, the primary character of Lent, is often neglected or forgotten. It is not surprising then that many Catholics, laden with the heavy burden of consciousness of sin and its effects, are not eager to return to Mass after Ash Wednesday. Yet, they miss out on the richness of our communal journey to the Father’s mercy.
But why have we neglected this other aspect of Lent, what St. Gregory of Nazianzus calls “… God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift…?”
Commonly, during Lent we pray the Stations of the Cross and we accompany our Lord on this “way of the cross” by taking up our own cross through opportunities for sacrifice. And Lent comes to a culmination with the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Week. What does this have to do with Baptism? St. Paul reminds us: “Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:3)
Immersed in the waters of Baptism we are buried with Christ, and rise up from the waters of regeneration as a “new creature” (2Cor. 5:17, Gal 6:15). It is the blood of the sacrifice that makes this regeneration possible.
At the Easter Vigil we will be guided through Baptism’s prefigurement in the Old Covenant. From the beginning, when the spirit of God is present as “…a mighty wind sweeping over the waters” (Gen 1:2), to the people of God crossing the Jordan to arrive at the promised land of Abraham’s descendants.
This foreshadowing illustrates that God is acting in history, and Baptism should not be understood as a static event in the past, it is the indelible mark of being “claimed for Christ” (Rite of Baptism, 41), it is our new life in the Spirit, it is our call to mission, it is our royal inheritance of the Kingdom and our identity as sons and daughters of God.
On the day of our Baptism, if we were baptized as infants, our parents were asked a question, if baptized as adults then the question is asked of us, “What do you ask of God’s Church?” Parents of an infant, full of joy and hope for the future of this child just entering the world, come to ponder this question. What are your hopes and dreams for this child? Adult Catechumens also ask themselves what brings me to this place, what am I seeking?
In responding, we tap into the faith of the Universal Church, the faith in which we are to be baptized. In it we discover an identity as missionary disciples, we arrive to baptism because we are called to know and to love God.
Lent calls us to reflect on this key moment in our life. When this season comes to an end we will renew our Baptismal Promises at the Easter Vigil. We will reject Satan, and all his works, and all his empty promises, and we will profess our faith. Let us render this dynamism of our Baptism a present reality and not an artifact of the distant past.
Ray Almanza is a Vicariate Coordinator in the Diocesan Office of Catechetical Ministry.