CHRIST OUR SAVIOR
Roman Catholic Parish
MANCHESTER, VERMONT

 
 

March 17, 2019

Dear All,

Well before there was any such thing as Lent, there was Easter; in fact there was Easter even before there was Holy Week. It was a particular understanding of Easter that led to the custom of celebrating Baptism at the end of a night-long Easter Vigil. Saint Paul had declared that You who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, you too might have a new life. Easter was the Church's calendar recognition of the unity of these two things: the historical fact of Jesus' Resurrection and the sacramental fact of the neophytes' death to sin and birth into Christ Jesus.

Once the Church emerged from the catacombs and began to organize its life and have a uniform public discipline. This death to sin theme came to be associated with the repentance and reconciliation of those who had so grievously sinned that they were condemned to a period of public penance (this amounted to a kind of temporary excommunication). During that period the sinners were commanded to appear at the door of the Church on Sunday Morning, with ashes on their heads (you can see where this is going!) to beg those going into church to pray for their perseverance in penance and their eventual reconciliation to the Church.

That reconciliation took place on the Thursday before Easter (it was not yet Holy Thursday) at a service in which the Bishop met the sinners/penitents at the door of the Church and led them by the hand in a long line into the Church to stand around the altar for the first time since they began their penance.

On Friday, these newly reconciled sinners joined the catechumens in a pre-Easter fast that was broken only after the Mass of the Lord's Resurrection.
In time, the period of public penance was fixed at six weeks (Lent) and the ashes that designated the penitents came to be received, as well, by other Christians who wished to share in the prayers of the community and the benefits of penance even though their sins did not merit the full discipline of public penance.

You will notice that in those days absolution followed the performance of the penitential practice. It was the Irish who allowed plain old priests to reconcile sinners and to give them absolution before they had completed their penance. One of the reasons for this was the shortage of bishops in Ireland; another was the severity and length (sometimes a lifetime) of the penances imposed.

By the time of the Council of Trent our present practice of private confession, acceptance of a penance and reception of absolution had become pretty much the universal practice and the Fathers decreed that those older practices were not to be brought back.

But imagine a time in life of the Church when it was thought to be a penalty to be excluded from Mass and people actually refrained from Holy Communion on a willing basis because of their sense of guilt!

Really and truly and ab-ash-ed-ly yours,

tm

     



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