What is belonging?
When we belong, we experience fitting in, just as we are, right now. We experience being a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are able to share and give of our unique gifts, and know that these actions are welcomed and needed. We have a home, a place of acceptance, warmth, and love. The origins of the season of Lent indeed reveal the depth and power of belonging for Christians.
Lent: Not Just Individual Piety
Now, in our modern culture, many (if not most!) think of Lent as a season of individual piety for the most devout Catholic believers. Yet, the ancient origins of Lent lie in the practices of those preparing for baptism or to publicly reconcile with the Church.* These ones on the “outside” of the wider Christian community would prepare for full communion at Easter in symbolic imitation of the “40 days” of Jesus in the wilderness–an event with ties to both Moses and Elijah’s “40 days” (Mt 4:1–11, Mk 1:12-13, Luke 4:1–13, Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8).
The Christian community implicitly grasped the profound significance of belonging. Instead of allowing those on the “outside”–the unbaptized, the un-reconciled–to engage in a Lenten preparatory period of spiritual growth alone, the entire Christian community entered into the same journey. The circle of belonging was not merely for those who were already baptized, for those who believed and behaved in ways that left no need for public reconciliation–it was for everyone. The actions of the early Church say, “We’re all in Lent together. We all belong here.” Joining the unbaptized in preparing for baptism shows that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace–we’re all imperfect yet being made perfect in love by the one who is Love.
Lent for Early Christians
What would the unbaptized, joined by the entire Christian community, actually do to prepare for baptism? Like Jesus during his post-baptismal time in the desert wilderness, Christians were encouraged to “satisfy themselves with the Word of God [more] than with bodily food,” in “bountiful benevolence” a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to be “be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity” (St. Leo, Sermon 40; Mt 5:6). Forgiving, living virtuously, caring for the poor and marginalized, and prayer become part of Lent. Acts of penance that are internal and individual, as well as external and social are encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 110). And, of special emphasis, fasting that reminds us our lives are not our own, we depend on God and others for life’s most basic needs. This culminates at Easter with a common font of the true water of life, where we all experience home–both those who are baptized and the wider community who renews baptismal vows with the same water. Jesus begins his desert time “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and at the end of his “40 days” overflows in the “power of the Spirit,” proclaiming in the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to announce the Good News” (Lk 4:1,14,18). We too can confidently expect the Spirit to lead us during Lent, and empower all of us who are anointed in baptism (even the most newly baptized) to announce the Good News.
In a 5th century Lenten sermon, Pope St. Leo the Great rallied believers:
“let us all together, without difference of rank, without distinction of desert, with pious eagerness pursue our race from what we have attained to what we yet aspire to.” (Sermon 40)
Becoming a church community where all experience belonging means putting aside “differences of rank”–of assuming that certain religious backgrounds, relationship statuses, family sizes, occupations, or types of people fit in the Church, your parish, or ministry, more than others. It means ensuring that we live out St. Leo’s exhortation to avoid making “distinctions of deserts”–implicitly judging or looking down on the spiritual and practical struggles of another. As St. Paul writes, “all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).
Lent: Icon of the Entire Year
If the baptismal character and roots of Lent seem a bit lost or murky in your practical and lived experiences of Lent, then this is something to address–a wonderful opportunity for your church community! As the bishops explained at the Second Vatican Council:
The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis. (Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], para. 109)
How to do this is left to your discernment, but the important part is to do it–allow Lent to be not merely individualistic penance, but also a powerful recalling and preparation for baptism, a solidarity among all rooted in our common need for God’s forgiveness, an authentic belonging.
This belonging embodied in Lent is what we are called to be at all times during the year. Just as the Prodigal Father runs out to meet his Prodigal, Older Son, our Lenten practices call us out of individualism and self-centeredness in our walk with Jesus to a deep solidarity with the unbaptized–a true experience of belonging for all (Lk 15:11-32). For each and every one of us, the roots of Lent reveal a call to be more humbly open to others, more open to belonging as we pursue “what we yet aspire to,” together in Jesus our Lord.
*Note: The practice of imitating Jesus’ “40 days” symbolically (it was not universally precisely 40 days) was preparation for Baptism. After the Council of Nicea (325 AD), the Paschal Triduum (Easter) emerged as the ideal and preferred day for baptisms. With this, the “40 days” became more commonly located immediately prior to Easter, and the Paschal Fast that already was practiced during the 2 to 7 days prior to Easter. For those interested in the documentary evidence for this historical evolution, I recommend Paul Bradshaw and Max Johnson’s The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity (2011).