The Joyful Season of Lent
The following lines from Preface I of Lent may seem surprising to people accustomed to thinking of Lent solely as a time of penance: "Each year, you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed."
Lent is certainly a period marked by seriousness, but, contrary to certain stereotypes, it is also a time of joy.
Lent calls the Church to confront both individual and collective sin. We become aware of our sinfulness, however, not by remaining fixated on ourselves, but by contemplating the love of God revealed by the Son in the Spirit. The readings for Masses during Lent certainly denounce sin but at the same time proclaim the divine mercy which is always ready to forgive.
The call to conversion which we hear again and again in the prayers and scriptures of the Lenten season is not intended to overwhelm us with guilt and fear; it is an invitation to stand erect once more as people who are loved and forgiven by God.
The works of Lent -- prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- do not have value in themselves, as the scriptures proclaimed on Ash Wednesday clearly remind us. The Christian practice of fasting and almsgiving is not an ascetical performance or some form of self-imposed penitential punishment but aims at leading us to interior conversion. Fasting at certain times helps us to keep, or to rediscover, mastery over our instincts. We fast in order to share our time and our treasure with an attitude of love towards God and others.
Since its beginning, the "reason for the season" has been a time of preparation for Easter, as the words of the Lenten Preface I quoted above indicate. The first reading of each Sunday of Lent recalls the wonderful work of God among the Hebrew people. At the Easter Vigil, we hear these stories again, starting with creation, the first step in God's universal plan of salvation.
Easter is the liturgical and sacramental celebration of renewal, of the passage from death to life, of new birth through our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ in baptism. That is why the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called for "more use to be made of the baptismal features proper to the Lenten liturgy" (CSL 109a).
For catechumens who will receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil, Lent is a time of intense preparation. But the whole community walks with them on their journey to membership of the Church and welcomes them into its midst. In a certain sense, we remain catechumens throughout our lives as we travel the road towards perfection in Christ. At the Easter Vigil, all the baptized are called to return to their Baptism by renewing their profession of faith and their commitment to discipleship.
Lent is not a period of guilt-laden introspection, but a joyful walk towards the great season of Easter, a progression in the Church toward the summit of the liturgical year.