What is Lent all about?

Fr. T.P. Reynolds
March 14, 2011

Have you ever noticed how quickly Lent follows Christmas? No sooner has the Church celebrated the birth of Jesus than it celebrates His death.

E-Journey through Lent

The Lenten frugality is interspersed with various feastdays. We celebrate the feast of St. David, March 1st, patron saint of Wales (whose emblem is the daffodil); St. Patrick, March 17th, patron saint of Ireland, (the shamrock); and St. Joseph, March 19th (the lily).

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Is it not equally strange that, in the Apostles’ Creed, as soon as we profess our belief that Jesus was ‘born of the Virgin Mary,’ we add our belief that he ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried’? The creed does not ask us to profess our belief in his public life!

This curious omission of events in Jesus’ public life is further accentuated in the fifteen decades of the traditional rosary. The first five deal with the advent and birth of Jesus, the second five with His Passion and death, and the third five with His resurrection and post-resurrection events. Until Pope John Paul II introduced five new ‘luminous mysteries’ of the rosary in 2002, there was nothing whatsoever in this very Catholic prayer that dealt with the public life of Jesus.

Is this not strange? It certainly seems so and calls for explanation.

In the growth of the New Testament tradition, the earliest ‘gospel’ preached was the gospel of the Passion, death and resurrection. We find this earliest articulation of the gospel in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. He writes, “I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel . . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, etc.” (ICor. 15: 1, 3-5). It is clear that for St. Paul, the gospel was primarily about the Passion, death and resurrection, that is, about the events covered in the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary.

That was so for St. Paul. But Matthew, Mark, Luke and John begin their gospels elsewhere. Mark, who wrote the first narrative gospel and who alone calls his book a ‘gospel,’ begins with the baptism of Jesus. Matthew and Luke begin their books with the birth of Jesus, that is, with the events covered in the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary. John begins his book with the very creation over which, he says, the Word presided. What is important to note, however, is that while in chapter after chapter in all four books we find accounts of the things that Jesus said and did during His public life, the four evangelists’ stories end with the gospel as St. Paul understood it—the Passion, death and resurrection.

This curious fact leads scripture scholars to say that the four books we call gospels are in fact “Passion narratives with extended introductions.” In other words, in their Passion narratives the four evangelists flesh out St. Paul’s account of the Passion-gospel and to it they add the many words and deeds we familiarly call the public ‘ministry’ of Jesus. The early Christians, it would seem, in agreement with St. Paul, considered as of first importance the death and resurrection of Jesus rather than His pre-existence, His birth or even His life. The Cross, not the crèche, is the central symbol of Christianity,

E-Journey through Lent

The Lenten frugality is interspersed with various feastdays. We celebrate the feast of St. David, March 1st, patron saint of Wales (whose emblem is the daffodil); St. Patrick, March 17th, patron saint of Ireland, (the shamrock); and St. Joseph, March 19th (the lily).

Read the prayer | More Prayers | More Reflections

But they did not see Jesus’ life and ministry as mere Prologue. They saw it as a demonstration of the Way and they underlined that the Way leads to the Cross. The evangelists understood the ministry of Jesus—His words and deeds—as a lesson in the challenging way of life demanded of disciples dedicated to doing God’s will. We have Jesus’ word for it that God’s kingdom comes wherever God’s will is done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ But it does not come without sacrifices. A life dedicated to doing God’s will is not free of pain or sorrow. In fact it is a journey under the weight of a cross.

St. Luke accentuates this better than the other evangelists. Like Mark and Matthew, Luke has Jesus say to his followers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). But Luke alone follows this statement with a ten-chapter account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. During the journey He teaches His disciples how hard the Way can be and how heavy the cross.

So, despite its association with the Crucifixion, Lent focuses not on the death of Jesus but on His life—a life lived in obedience to God’s will. The Mass readings during Lent are all about how to walk the Way. It is an invitation to us to join Jesus at that part of His life when he resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem and to the Cross. (Lk. 9:51)

Lent is also an educational course for apprentice Christians—for those we call catechumens. The course teaches them—and reminds us—that life in obedience to God’s will is not a bowl of cherries, but a struggle to be truly salt of the earth and light of the world.