Lenten Reflections Of Monsignor Charles Cooper
- a period of six weeks
in the Christian Year, leading up to Easter -
By Monsignor Charles Cooper
To have an understanding of Lent, we need to go back in time and examine the situation of Christians in the first centuries of the Church.
It was a time when throughout the then-known world of the Roman Emperor, Christians were an insignificant minority of the population, regarded with suspicion.
As a result, those people who were Christian ha to have a strong conviction of the truth of Jesus Christ and their lives were totally committed to living every aspect of their lives in accord with the Teaching of Jesus Christ.
Christians, wherever they were, tended to have formed themselves into very close-knit, self-supporting communities. They knew each other well, had had to learn to be discreet about themselves, especially in times of persecution!
But they also saw themselves as acting as a "leaven" in the life of the secular community and hoped that by the goodness of their lives, the sense of conviction and joy that should be apparent in their lives, others might be attracted to discover from them the source of the goodness and happiness, which was, of course, the Person of Jesus Christ.
When someone or some group of persons indicated they could be interested to learn more about Christians and their way of life, these people were regarded as "Enquirers", and some members of the Christian community would meet with them on a regular basis until such time as they were convinced of their sincerity and the Enquirers indicated they wanted to seriously pursue their search into the truth of Jesus Christ.
Then they would be formally received into the local community, or Church, as provisional members, and they were called "Catechumens".
During that period they participated in the life of the Church community, especially in their services of worship centred on the Bible, and in works of social concern such as tending to the needs of the sick, orphans and widows.
But they were excluded from the religious ritual of the Church called the Eucharist when Christians re-enacted what Jesus had doe at the last Supper on the night before he was crucified.
Essentially, being a Catechumen meant being on probation or serving an apprenticeship. They were given instructions. Learnt more about Jesus Christ, his life and teaching, and came to a fuller understanding about themselves and the purpose of human existence.
They were free to withdraw from membership of the community and, equally, the community could decide whether they were suited to be given full membership.
When the Catechumens were ready for full membership, which was conferred by Baptism, also called "Christening" and when they would be allowed to join the rest of the community for the Eucharist, they had to undertake a six-week period of intense preparation involving daily instruction, prayer and works of charity.
Since Baptism took place at Easter, these six weeks of concentrated preparation took place immediately before that great Christian Festival.
For that six-week period of preparation, the candidates for Baptism had to take leave from their normal occupation to give themselves full-time to their learning, prayer and good works, and hhey would be totally supported and looked after by the rest of the Christian community.
So for the rest of the community, caring for them and helping them, this six weeks became a time of revision and renewal.
After the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Toleration in 313 AD, Europe gradually became Christian and everyone was baptised when they were very young children.
With that change there were no more adult Catechumens.
But the six week period of preparation before Easter remained and remains to this day, for followers of Jesus Christ, as a time of renewal as well as a preparation for Easter.
- Author Monsignor Charles Cooper is the priest of San Antonio Parish, Eastbourne, Wellington, New Zealand.