By Fr. Joseph DeFrancisco
C.S. Lewis’ insightful work, “Mere Christianity,” invites us to explore a new parable, “the parable of a Turtle,” in which Lewis compares the Christian spiritual journey to that of a turtle, “slow-paced-we go.” Could this not be an apt description of our Christian Lent, derived from the Latin lente, meaning, “slowly?”
The spiritual season of Lent has come to revolve around the theme of “conversion.” If we apply Lewis’ metaphor, then Christian conversion is a slow process of becoming transformed into the perfect image and likeness of God, in and through his beloved son, Jesus, our Christ. The long journey of Lent does ask us to pause and take a more meditative/contemplative look at our Christian spiritual journey, in order to enter more consciously into the transforming life and power of the Holy Spirit guiding our lives.
Historically, the season of Lent developed in connection with baptism. A fourth century pilgrim, Egeria, provided one of our earliest documentations of what the seven-week-long Lent was meant to be. In Jerusalem, on the first day of Lent, the bishop, seated on his bishop’s chair, “cathedra” flanked on both sides by presbyters, called each new aspirant seeking baptism to come forward. Then he would ask their Christian “neighbors” to vouch for their sincerity, moral uprightness, commitment to “honor their parents,” and so forth. Once vetted, the aspirants would begin their lengthy two- to three-year process of becoming a Christian, first in deed and lifestyle, then in sacrament.
By the end of the fourth century the season of Lent was a spiritual boot-camp for the converts who after three years made a more immanent preparation for their sacramental initiation, which included immersion in water, the anointing in the Holy Spirit and first Eucharist. During the weeks of Lent, the Christian aspirants were asked to be more engaged in helping the poor and needy. They were also to fast on bread and water for 40 days, meditate deeply on the words of the Lord’s Prayer and do acts of penance for their sins.
Other community members would fast and pray with and in support of the baptismal candidates. Gradually, Lent evolved into a penitential season, not only for converts preparing for baptism, but for the entire Christian Church as a means of exercising “self-denial” and more actively participating in the dying and rising of Jesus.
Today during Lent, we make a three-fold spiritual commitment to immerse ourselves more deeply in daily prayer, in “fasting” or separating ourselves from whatever physical, mental or spiritual obstacles may be preventing more holistic human-spiritual growth in our journey to God, and to a more fervent outreach in charity. Thomas Merton in his work, “Seasons of Celebration,” turns to the Gospel of St. John to describe the Lenten process of conversion and transformation, “every dead branch will be purged, while every good branch will be pruned so as to bring forth more fruit (John 15:1).”
Reflecting on the Gospel passage, Merton suggests that while fasting and self-denial are vital expressions of Lenten spirituality, what matters most is the fruit of those practices, our faithful and Spirit-empowered efforts to share the fullness of God’s life and love in our broken world. For this reason, one of my yearly Lenten spiritual commitments is to take up the Scriptures again and assess my Christian life through a meditation on the 41 parables on the Kingdom of God.
Making this daily comparison to the life of Jesus, model of life in the Kingdom, is truly a daily shock and wake-up call,that the true image of Jesus in me is still very weak and cloudy. I have so far yet to journey in becoming the presence of Jesus in our world. I strive, as St. Paul suggests in the letter to the Romans, Chapter 6, that having been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, I might walk in newness of life.
(Fr. Joseph DeFrancisco is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)