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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
and truly and ab-ash-ed-ly yours,