Where I live, there are some unmistakable signs that spring is, or soon will be, here. There’s the occasional flower bud that tries to get the jump on its fellows and spring-training reports from Florida that tell us the Orioles, as usual, stink. There’s also the variable weather: snow on Sunday, 85 degrees on Wednesday. But my favorites are supermarket ads that proclaim “Seafood for Lent” and entice customers with bargain-priced shrimp and salmon-steaks.
These ads refer to the Christian practice of fasting and/or abstaining from certain foods in the approximately seven weeks preceding Easter, which are known as Lent and Holy Week. Regardless of what form the observance takes, the message is the same: For Christians, this is the most important time of the year. It’s a time that can transform us in a way that’s every bit as unmistakable as what’s happening to the weather.
While neither “Lent” — which comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lengten,” meaning “spring” — nor “Holy Week” appear in Scripture, the observances of Lent and Holy Week go back a long way in Christian history. The bishop and theologian Irenaeus wrote about fasting and other practices associated with Holy Week — the week before Easter — in the second century after Christ. The church historian Eusebius wrote that practices such as these dated to apostolic times, i.e., the years immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. In addition to “Holy Week,” it was known as the “Week of the Holy Passion” — from the Latin word “passus” which means “to suffer” — and “The Week of Forgiveness.”
The recorded history of Lent goes back almost as far. In 339 A.D., another bishop and theologian, Athanasius, described a fast that began 40 days — a period of time that was derived from the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness at the start of his public ministry — prior to Holy Week as being the custom throughout the Christian world and urged his flock in Alexandria, Egypt not to be a “laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.”
Irrespective of the particular forms that observances of Lent and Holy Week took, their goals and purposes were the same. It was a time during which recent converts to Christianity were instructed and prepared for baptism, which took place at Easter. For these candidates, known as catechumens, the seven weeks of Lent and Holy Week were figuratively and literally the time during which they passed from darkness to light and from death to life.
An ancient document, known as the Gelassian Sacramentary, provides us with a glimpse at the anticipation and significance of their experience:
On Holy Saturday, those who had been elected as being ready for illumination would meet together as catechumens for the last time. Here they are “catechized” by undergoing a final exorcism; they renounce Satan, are anointed with the “oil of exorcism” which has been blessed along with the chrism the preceding Holy Thursday, and recite the Creed which they have memorized since hearing it in the fourth scrutiny [on the preceding Sunday].
They kneel for prayer, and are then dismissed, being told to go home “and await the hour when the grace of God in baptism shall be able to enfold you.
For the already-baptized, Lent and Holy Week were no less meaningful. Lent has been called the “springtime of the Church.” Christians were called upon to examine their lives and repent of their sins. They were to recall the vows they made at their baptism and recommit themselves to living in a way that was consistent with those vows.
Now, if you’re anything like me — and for your sake, I pray that you’re not — all this talk about self-examination and repentance can be unnerving and even depressing. After all, the contours of my life are marked by (to borrow a phrase by Re:Generation Quarterly‘s Andy Crouch) “disappointment, transcendence, frustration, delight, and anxiety — and a fair amount of just plain sin.” My shortcomings can cause me to dread, not look forward to, this “springtime” of the Church.
That’s because, as is my wont, my self-absorption causes me to miss the point and blinds me to the central and distinctive role that memory plays in biblical faith, especially during Holy Week. Holy Week is about anamnesis, bringing the past to mind in a way that transforms the present. During Holy Week we rehearse — in the most basic meaning of that word — the story of our salvation, starting with the Fall and culminating in Good Friday.
And throughout this rehearsal, a consistent picture of God emerges: the God who takes the initiative in reconciling us to Himself. He didn’t wait for us to somehow “measure up.” Instead, He came down and met us where we were. We are forgiven, as Maximus the Confessor said, through the human decision of a divine person — a decision we recall most vividly on Holy (or Maundy) Thursday and Good Friday.
Notice the past tense: “forgiven.” It’s already happened and none of us had anything to do with it. As St. Augustine, in his sermon for the Monday of Holy Week, asked: “Where were the sinners, what were they, when Christ died for them?”
No, this time isn’t about dwelling on our faults but recalling God’s mercy and love for us. The anamnesis I’ve described isn’t meant to be a source of guilt or self-condemnation, but of hope. As Augustine put it, “When Christ has already given us the gift of His death, who is to doubt that He will give the saints the gift of His own life?”
Memory is what gives Lent and Holy Week their power. Hope, born of recalling that “through [Christ] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” can transform us in a way that shame and guilt — to say nothing of indifference — cannot. Hope is why this springtime of the Church can shape us in ways that are not only unmistakable but eternal, as well.
Copyright 2003 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.