The Long Road Home

The hiatus in posts has been caused by an escape from winter. While this meant a most welcome respite for my body from the circulation problems caused by frostbite damage from my youth, it also took me away from easy computer access. In the electronic era, that removes one from living communication. Now, back in the cold, I am again among the electronically viable and, inshallah, weekly posts will resume.

It is timely, in that we stand at the hinge of the Church Year between the feasts of the Incarnation and the beginning of the Paschal cycle. In the Eastern Church, this begins with the three great Sundays introducing Lent (Zacchaeus, the “Sunday of Desire,” the Pharisee and the Publican, and the Prodigal Son). In the Western Church, it formerly was observed in the three “gesima” Sundays, beginning the countdown to Easter with the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the sower and the healing miracle of restored sight. Alas, these are now rarely observed among us in favor of an extended Epiphany season, a great spiritual loss.

Perhaps the loss was predictable, a symptom of a church leadership which wants to accommodate the modern desire for instant gratification and short attention spans, feasts without fasts or preparation. As Charles Schultz’ Lucy in the “Peanuts” cartoons expressed it: “I don’t want hills and valleys, ups and downs, I just want hills and ups.” Even Holy Week church attendance, essential to understanding the central events of all history, is sparse in comparison with Easter. The great fast of preparation itself has been largely replaced by post-feast dieting instead of the forty days of Paschal joy celebrated by the Church of the first millennium. Is it surprising as churches move towards a quick, abbreviated Easter that the populace votes with its feet to stay away even from Easter attendance itself, with egg-laying Easter bunnies replacing Paschal joy.

In this, we are coming to the culmination of a long revision of the role of Lent. For a long time, Lent established itself as a season independent of the Paschal cycle. It was a time of self-denial, when one was to give up something of value or pleasure, along with meat (thus, “carnival,” from the Latin “carne,”meat, which immediately preceded the fast). The connection with preparation for the festival of the Resurrection was lost, as the Lenten message concentrated on one’s own spiritual austerity, in hopes of making a better person through denial of material desires.

Good luck on that one. For the most part, such exercises produce results lasting about as long as its secular twin, the New Year’s Resolution. Lent does not have its origins in such attempts at all, and these Gnostic efforts are doomed to failure among a sinful mankind. Lent evolved instead from the period of preparation for baptism, traditionally done at the Easter celebration. The liturgical traces of this are in the baptismal commemoration of the Easter vigil on Saturday night. Since the liturgical day, following Hebrew tradition, begins at sundown, the Easter celebration also begins at sundown Saturday, not at midnight nor, the Protestant favorite, sunrise. There are still places where the celebration lasts all night, befitting the exuberant rejoicing commemorating the most wonderful and loving event of all history.

If you, along with more than a few theology professors and trendy church leaders, imagine yourself too sophisticated to believe in the historical event of the Resurrection itself, you might as well skip all this and sleep in, as St. Paul suggests (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). The candidates for Easter baptism in the early church were exercising a Lent of preparation through catechesis leading to a radical new birth in Christ, a risky and dangerous decision in the first centuries. As the faithful walked alongside the catechumens in their preparation, it was a fast from a previous way of life leading to a renewal of the new birth. It had no meaning unless it centered in the Resurrection event. But given the reality of the event, it meant everything, life itself.

It still does. Lent is not an occasion for moral improvement, just as Christianity itself is a lot more than simply an ethical way to live. Instead, Lent remains the foundational preparation for drowning in the baptismal waters in order to rise to new life through the work of the risen Christ, achieved in the horror of the Cross and the triumph of the empty tomb.

The traditional dietary restraint of Lent is certainly of value. To refrain for a season from killing other creatures when it is entirely unnecessary to maintain your life is at least a start on a new life in the remembrance of a Paradise lost, when “the lion will lie down with the lamb” (see Isaiah 11) as God originally intended and mankind originally rejected. But respect for the life of the earth’s beings won’t really make sense until you see it as the Lord’s earth, and understand that the Lord loves this creation so much that he was willing to make an incredible sacrifice in order to raise it to a restored perfection, a sacrifice made out of love for you and I, among billions of others.

If the only exposure people have to this is an annual hour of happy talk at sunrise on Easter morning, it is understandable that nothing much is impacted in their lives. But if the preparation has started in the Sundays before Lent calling them to repentance and total reliance on the unconditional and undeserved grace of God, has continued through the catechesis of learning the pivotal events of Jesus’ work on earth, has resulted in an understanding of a new life exercised in the gift of baptism, has led to the Eucharistic absorption into the Body of Christ, and finally finds one standing at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday and the renewal of the Easter vigil, it can burst forth in the celebration of the Resurrection as the night turns to dawn. No wonder the shouts of “Christ is risen” have echoed through the centuries as the faithful of each age grasp anew the impact of the news.

If you are a pastor responsible for the spiritual well-being of your flock, might I suggest that this year you begin to take the historical fact of the Resurrection seriously and, avoiding the temptation to provide the quick-fix of instant gratification, lead your people anew through the baptismal waters, beginning with the careful preparation they deserve as children of God.