The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
Lent: Baptism and Penance Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Thursday, 06 March 2014

At the heart of the liturgical reform intended by the Second Vatican Council lies the Paschal mystery, the redemption wrought by Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, whereby “dying, he destroyed our death, and rising, restored our life.” Like a jeweler cutting a raw diamond, the Council sought to showcase the brilliant splendor of the Paschal mystery through “the reform and promotion” of the sacred liturgy. To this end, rites were to be revised and texts reformulated both “to express more clearly the holy things which they signify” and to ensure “the full and active participation by all the faithful” in their worship of almighty God.

Among the seasons of the liturgical year, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy gave detailed attention to Lent alone because it exists specifically to prepare the faithful for the Paschal mystery’s annual celebration. Lent, wrote St. Leo the Great, is “a holy retreat of forty days during which we are to regain purity of soul.” In imitation of Christ, Lent calls us into a spiritual desert where we focus more intensely on personal conversion – putting off the old self laden with sin in order to put on Christ and receive the graces that Easter promises.

In service of this end, Lent has two principal elements: preparing for or recalling baptism and penance. The Constitution declared that these two elements “should be given greater emphasis in the liturgy and liturgical catechesis.” In particular, it recommended the restoration of the baptismal elements of the Lenten liturgy and a practice of penance that is both individual and social in its renunciation of sin as an offense against God.

Fifty years after the Council, these efforts have yet to reveal the full splendor of the Paschal mystery to the faithful. The shortcoming stems in part from the unexpected collapse of penance, which was humiliated by popular psychology until it seemed more like an evil itself than evil’s remedy. At the same time, sin seemed to shrink in the minds of many Catholics, and without sin there is surely no need for repentance. As a result, the sacramental penance of confession has been forgotten, the social practice of penance called for by the Council never came about, and the traditional penitential act of fasting has been reduced to an optional exercise.

For the Paschal mystery to shine again in the lives of the faithful, both elements of Lent – baptism and penance – must be lived together. Through penance we recall the evil of sin and the need for God’s grace of healing. This grace is received in baptism and renewed each time we confess our sins or receive the Holy Eucharist. Baptism and penance are supernatural replies to the call to die to the old self and live with the Lord at Easter. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17)


        The Preaching of John the Baptist by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1566)

The holy season of Lent was born from a kind of spiritual circumincessio (reciprocal penetration) between baptism and penance. The practice of baptism began with John in the river Jordan, where he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John taught that in order to prepare the way of the Lord his hearers must repent – acknowledge their sins and turn away from them. As they were baptized in water they confessed their sins, and they heard the promise of a mightier one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

In a probing passage, St. Paul located the act of repentance and the rebirth wrought by baptism in the paschal mystery. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)

In Paul’s analysis, baptism is our direct link with Easter. Christ called us to repentance and baptism before he willingly sacrificed himself on the Cross for our salvation. He declared to the sons of Zebedee that this sacrifice would be his baptism, and through it he descended into the depths of sin and emerged victorious over death. In baptism, our sinful selves are plunged into the waters sanctified by Christ’s death so that we die with him. But by manifesting God’s glory through his resurrection, Christ revealed the new life promised to those who believe as they emerge purified from the baptismal waters with a “new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:24)

Before we can begin the new life promised in baptism, then, we first must reject sin. The primitive Church urged those seeking baptism to manifest their internal repentance through fasting, Christianity’s most widespread form of exterior penance. The Didache exhorted a fast before baptism for both the baptizer and the one to be baptized, with the latter to sustain the fast for one or two days. St. Justin Martyr described a common fast both for those seeking baptism and for the Christians who would receive them into the Church. Tertullian likewise urged preparation for baptism with prayers and fasts.

Baptism and penance are thus the pillars upon which Lent stands. As two essential supports of Christian practice, they hold before the faithful the essential aspects of the Paschal mystery: sin, suffering, death, repentance, grace, forgiveness, rebirth, eternal life. Conscious of these elements, the faithful perform their works of penance as a way of dying to self and dying with Christ, with the hope that they may emerge spiritually reborn in the new life that is beautifully symbolized by the baptismal waters of Easter.

 
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (6)Add Comment
0
...
written by Ted Seeber, March 06, 2014
I'm beginning to realize the influence the Jesuits have had on this directly. The combination of their insistence upon academic freedom, and the plus sign (trying to put an orthodox spin or cause to any action no matter how sinful) has led many Catholics taught by Jesuits to deny their favorite sins are sins at all.
0
...
written by Myshkin, March 06, 2014
@Ted

You're on to something. Now that we have a Jesuit Pope can you expect anything other than casuistry (in the pejorative sense of the word) coming out of Rome?
0
...
written by Sofia Guerra, March 08, 2014
I'm reading this and in shock that someone as educated as you are could write something so ridiculous.
"Fifty years after the Council, these efforts have yet to reveal the full splendor of the Paschal mystery to the faithful. The shortcoming stems in part from the unexpected collapse of penance, which was humiliated by popular psychology until it seemed more like an evil itself than evil’s remedy. At the same time, sin seemed to shrink in the minds of many Catholics, and without sin there is surely no need for repentance. As a result, the sacramental penance of confession has been forgotten, the social practice of penance called for by the Council never came about, and the traditional penitential act of fasting has been reduced to an optional exercise."

You wasted our time with this pablum. Do you think all Catholics are lazy and undisciplined? Do you think we are children. Shame on this even being printed. I want the 10 mins back you stoke from me. You teach at Dunwoodie? I need to pray for your students.
Of course you won't have the guts to print this. But you will know my comment. Shaking my head, disgusted.
0
...
written by Chris Ramsey, March 08, 2014
Wow Sofia... that's pretty harsh! I'm obviously not as smart as you - please help me understand what you find so ridiculous about the passage you quoted. And by the way, I've seen clear evidence that MANY of us are "lazy and undisciplined" in the practice of our faith. While you're praying for Dr. Bonagura's students, please add me to the list.
0
...
written by David Bonagura, March 08, 2014
Dear Sofia,
Thank you for praying for my students. Since you had far more to say about me than my ideas expressed above, I thank you also for giving me the opportunity to grow in charity and humility during this holy season of Lent. God bless you.
0
...
written by Maria Tierney Koehn, March 09, 2014
Mr. David G. Bonagura, Jr. , Hello. Great article. I wish I had heard the beauty of Penance and redemptive suffering earlier. In a nut shell, the flesh has last power, the world has less power and the devil has less power. I hope we all make this a very beautiful lent. It is the gift truly needed.

I have found I have three tumors one the doctor won't know until she removes it, if it is cancerous and for the two other ones, the doctor is having the biopsy sample tested a third time, they are being sent to Israel. Which I find quite endearing and comforting because Jesus took our sins to the Holy Land. If I can't get to the Holy Land I am grateful and sadden that my sins made it there and my Redeemer Lives.

I wait to hear upon the results, but I in my best penance to give him yet and no fear, still find my eyes seem to leak tears out for the next forty years I may not be here on earth for my children, but The Lord has given me such thoughts through the last few months that the children and I know God is walking with us.

So I know God will be in the lives of my children and he draws them. He makes the journey sweet.

Again it is wonderful to see an article like this! God's best to you and your family, Maria

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 

Other Articles By This Author

CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner