by Fr. Anthony Reyes
Lent is a special time of year when Christians around the world take part in a period of reflection, prayer, and self-denial in preparation for Easter. It can be a challenging time as we look to draw nearer to God and to correspond better to the graces of the season. But it can also be an incredibly rewarding period, if we make use of the opportunity to better understand the presence of Christ through our own participation in His “mysteries” during Lent and Easter.
Presence of Christ
But what do we mean by “mysteries”? We will look into this by examining what the Church does during times of Lent and Easter. Christ is really present through His mysteries. The concept of ‘real presence’ is often used to refer to the Eucharist,[^1] but it can also refer to the presence of Christ through the mysteries, that is, through the rites and readings of the Church. The latter is the format we will follow.
1. Presence of Christ in the Sacraments and in the rites themselves. Preparation of Catechumens and Public Penitents
What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries (Pope Leo the Great).
Historically, the time all Christians were to spend in preparation for the celebration of the paschal mystery also became the time of intensive preparation for the catechumens. As the catechumens went through the lengthy process of Christian formation, the Church offered prayers for them. Then there were the ‘public penitents’. The whole community prayed and fasted not only for themselves but in solidarity with those who were awaiting re-admission to Church, for those in the “order of penitents”.[^2] These customs had significantly impacted the organization of Lent, its liturgy and spirit, in general.
Through the years, the implications of public reconciliation and baptismal rites on Lent were weakened and eventually severed. This caused Lent to become less focused on the theology of baptism than it had been in the past. Some remnants of it still remain in the liturgy.
Today, the Easter Vigil is still marked by baptisms for those who have newly joined the faith, and the rest of the faithful reaffirm their baptismal promises in a formal rite. It is customary for the ordinary faithful to confess their sins as they prepare for Easter which can be done yearly at least, as preparation to receive Communion at Easter time.[^3] Additionally, there are allusions to Baptism in some of the prayers and readings during this period. Lastly, some churches also offer a special blessing for those who were baptized during this time. This blessing serves as an additional reminder of the importance of Baptism in Christian life.
Baptism is a sacrament that signifies and celebrates our incorporation into the saving effects of Christ’s Paschal Mystery. It serves as a reminder of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, which brings into the individual level the fruits of Redemption and new life in the Spirit.
2. Presence of Christ’s mysteries in the readings
We must continue and fulfill in us the events and mysteries of Jesus, and ask him frequently to make them real and bring them to completion in us and in his entire Church (St. John Eudes).
With the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council, an increased emphasis was placed on the order of readings, highlighting the presence of the mysteries in important texts, especially those more closely aligned with the liturgical season. During Lent, the Temptation scene of the Gospel is chosen for the first Sunday.
The “Forty Days”
The 40 days of Lent[^4] symbolize Jesus’ 40 days spent in the wilderness before his ministry began and also allude to the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. As we journey through Lent, in the same spirit, we practice prayer, fasting, and self-examination, for a lengthy period of time, too, as the number suggests.
Here’s a bit of history. In the early centuries, Christians celebrated a Paschal Triduum that extended only from Good Friday (the death of Christ) through Saturday (Christ in the tomb) to the Sunday of the resurrection. Later, this Triduum was expanded to include Thursday, commemorating the Last Supper and even introducing a festive quality to these solemn days. A week seemed quite inadequate as preparation for a solemnity that would last for fifty days. In Rome, towards the end of the third century, the first addition by way of preparation was the three weeks of fasting. Still, Christians continued to feel an imbalance between the grandiosity of the Easter feast and the amount of time given to prepare for it. As a result, beginning at the end of the fourth century, forty days were dedicated to fasting in order to properly prepare for Easter. This period was marked by the first Sunday of the “Quadragesimal” fast, aptly named due to its duration of forty days. On Ash Wednesday the penitent entered the “order of penitents.” Later on, since every Christian could rightly be regarded as a “sinner,” the imposition of ashes was universalized. On Holy Thursday, there was not only the commemoration of the Last Supper, but also the reconciliation of public penitents. During the forty-day period, the catechumens underwent a comprehensive and carefully structured preparation which served as the culmination of the preceding three years of remote preparation, typically lasting for three years (Nocent).
Generally, the biblical events in the liturgy, such as the “40 days”, not only serve as scriptural justifications, but they are ‘sacramental’ commemorations that make certain invisible realities present through a specific mystery being highlighted in the celebrations. Through this, members of the community can be spiritually united with the mystery of the desert passage or journey through temptations.
The following is a fragment of a hymn for Morning Prayer for Lent which is a devotional prayer based on the theology of the ‘forty days’.
Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.
So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Deliver’d from the lion’s might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The herald of Messiah’s name
As we follow in the footsteps of these Old Testament heroes, we journey with Christ through a period of fasting, traversing the spiritual wilderness as a way to prepare ourselves for greater things ahead.
Easter vigil and the history of salvation
The Paschal Mystery is at the heart of the salvation history,[^5] anticipated by key events in the Old Testament. The complete set of readings for Easter Vigil, for example, outlines it. Further evidence can be found in the themes of the Sunday readings of Year A (I-V)
First Sunday: Creation and Fall. First promise of redemption
Second Sunday: Call of Abraham and the first covenant with the promise of numerous descendants
Third Sunday: Covenant with Moses and the gift of Law
Fourth Sunday: Anointing of David. Covenant renewed with a promise of an everlasting Kingdom
Fifth Sunday : Promise of the “new heart”. New covenant
From God’s promise of a Messiah to Abraham, to the Exodus and the giving of the Law, to the prophecies of a Saviour, each event unfolds gradually God’s plan for redemption. Through these events, we can see God’s grace and mercy at work, preparing us for the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Most importantly, the readings mark the development of the Covenant each time it is renewed in different stages,[^6] culminating in the “new and eternal” Covenant established by Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection (Paschal Mystery). This allows God’s Law to be written on people’s hearts (as described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:8-12), fulfilling all preceding Covenants. Each stage of renewal brings increasingly greater divine promises, reflecting God’s unconditional love for humanity (Hahn).
What is the Mystery then?
From what we have seen so far, we can already observe how the Mystery (invisible reality) is revealed through the events of the history of salvation (visible realities) and its actualization in the liturgy. This Mystery comes alive and is manifested more clearly when it is explained as a Story and in a fully theological context.
Simply put, the Mystery is the history of salvation! Christ is especially present in the key events of both Testaments, either in anticipation or in the fulfillment stage. He is there where his mysteries are made perpetual. The Mystery is not just a notion or an abstract idea, rather a concrete reality that is made present and actual each time the Word is proclaimed in liturgical contexts. As Blessed James Alberione said, “What is the liturgy? It is the actualization of the Bible.”[^7]
God, in revealing Himself and His plans for His people, does so mainly through the covenants, which are important events that give unity to all the narratives of the Bible. This divine economy which features these covenants can be compared to an ordinary “plot” of a book – when you read a story from beginning to end, you only get to follow the storyline through an understanding of the plot. The same applies to understanding the Word of God with a focus on the Covenants or Mystery. All the narrative books of the Bible speak one single Story that reveals God’s plan for salvation. Each Covenant is seen as part of this overarching narrative (Hahn).
Lastly, the Gospels themes are arranged as follows:
The first and second Sundays of Lent typically feature the Temptation and the Transfiguration scenes, respectively.
The rest (third to fifth Sunday) revolves around themes related to the principal mystery of Lent: themes related to baptism, namely, the “living water”, the “light”, and the “Resurrection”. For year B, those related to the paschal mystery: the “destruction of the temple”, “bronze serpent”, and the “grain of wheat”. Year C contains a series of divine mercy stories: prodigal son, adulterous woman, it signals the call for conversion. All of these topics can be seen as being centered around the Paschal Mystery and Baptism thus emphasizing the need for conversion.
The presence of Christ in the Liturgy is distinct from His real presence in the Eucharist, which is the presence of the Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The presence of Christ in the Liturgy, is an active one that connects us to the Mystery (history of salvation). Without this, Pope Francis declares, “without the real presence of the mystery of Christ, there is no liturgical vitality”.[^8] These sacred events are commemorated throughout the year, but Easter stands out as a special remembrance of our redemption, preceded by the season of Lent, a period of preparation for this solemn occasion. By our participation in it, we truly “continue and fulfill in us the events and mysteries of Jesus”.
IBANEZ, J.A. Abad, GARIDO, M. Bonaño. Iniciacion a la liturgia de la Iglesia. 1997, Madrid. 2nd ed.
MARTIN, Julian Lopez. Liturgia de la Iglesia. 1996, Madrid.
NOCENT, Adrien. The Liturgical Year (vol 2): Lent, the Sacred Paschal Triduum, Easter Time. 2013, Collegeville, Minesotta.
HAHN, Scott. Letter and Spirit. 2005, Doubleday.
[^1]: (The Eucharistic) presence is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man. (Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul VI)
[^2]: During the first centuries the reconciliation of Christians who had committed particularly grave sins after their Baptism (for example, idolatry, murder, or adultery) was tied to a very rigorous discipline, according to which penitents had to do public penance for their sins, often for years, before receiving reconciliation. To this “order of penitents” (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1447)
[^3]: The Church obliges the faithful ‘to take part in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days’ and, prepared by the sacrament of Reconciliation, to receive the Eucharist at least once a year, if possible during the Easter season. But the Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily (Code of Canon Law no. 1389).
[^4]: Forty may be more a figurative sign than literal count. The counting begins on the first Sunday of the season to Holy Thursday. That’s 40 days. If we count however from Ash Wednesday (before the I Sun), the 40 days ends on Palm Sunday, which in turn begins the Holy Week. The General Norms for the Liturgical year and Calendar (NALC) says: Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive (no. 28). It is also possible to count 40 days from Ash Wednesday to the Paschal Triduum excluding the Sundays.
[^5]: The theological focus of all liturgical observances is the “mystery,” referring primarily to the “mystery of Christ and most especially His Paschal Mystery” (Compendium of the Catechism, no. 218).
[^6]: Here is a list of the Covenants: Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26-2:3); Noah and his family (Genesis 9:8-17); Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-14; 22:16-18) Moses and the Israelites (Exodus 19:5-6; 3:4-10; 6:7); David and the Kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel 7:8-19); Jesus and the Church (Matthew 26:28; 16:17-19)
[^7]: Rosario F. Esposito (ed.), Carissimi in San Paolo: Lettere, Articoli, Opuscoli, Scritti Inediti di Don Giaccomo Alberione dal 1933 al 1969 (1971, Rome).
[^8]: Vatican II’s Liturgy: a “school of prayer” (Pope’s Address to the 68th National Italian Liturgical Week)