Lent: Baptism and Penance

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.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.