A few years ago at a church gathering of young people, I asked the question: What is Lent? The innocent response of a certain child blew me away. Thinking he heard the word “lint”, he said: “Isn’t that the stuff that’s in your bellybutton?” Following an affectionate reclarification of the word, we started a discussion about the season of Lent, and ended our session.

Yet the question was still burning inside; in the “old days”, didn’t we consider Lent a time of “navelgazing”, a time to look at all that was bad inside us and clean out the “lint”? For many of us, a look at the reforms initiated since Vatican II can free us to enter this season in deeper and richer ways. You see, Lent is really about Baptism.

Lent evolved from the Catechumenate, an ancient order of Christian initiation, restored after Vatican II. In the early church, as adults seeking to be members of the Christian community progressed through the stages of their formation, they came to the stage of immediate preparation for the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. These were celebrated at the Easter Vigil, and so they entered a period of fasting and prayer prior to Easter. This fast grew to be forty days in length and was soon observed not only by the catechumens, but by the whole community as a way of supporting catechumens and sharing their journey of conversion.

In later years, there were fewer adults to be baptized at Easter because the baptism of infants had become a common practice. We then shifted the focus to something similar: the need to do penance. For a while this took the form of public penance for sins. Later the practice of penance became private. It also became accepted by nearly all Christians as they received ashes to begin Lent and lived penitential lives all through the forty days.

The reforms of Vatican II asked us to discover again the keeping of these days- from Ash Wednesday and beyond to Pentecost- around the mystery of baptism. The presence of catechumens in the community, as they slowly journey to the waters of baptism, becomes the main business of Lent.

That is why Lent continues to be for ALL OF US in the community a time of repentance, a time for putting aside whatever keeps us from becoming all that baptism promised.

Do we continue, as a result, to navel-gaze and pick out the lint? No, not in the sense of a spiritual diet; but yes, as undertaken both for catechumens and our own baptismal renewal. Thus, we enter into PRAYER, FASTING, AND ALMSGIVING- not to beat ourselves up, but to be free- free from the usual business of the rest of the year that occupies us, so that we can stay close to the catechumens as they take those steps toward baptism- AND free to renew our own commitment to our baptism.

How do we enter into prayer, fasting and almsgiving? Perhaps the challenge in fasting is to discover our hungers. In this society we’re not supposed to have any emptiness or hunger. Every moment is stuffed full, every need satisfied. Our Lenten fasting is rooted in experiencing hunger for food, but it also goes beyond this. We go hungry so that we might discover what we truly need. Our fasting may take shape in looking hard at all we consume (and all that consumes us) and practicing some discipline in those areas. Fasting clears the deck. It shows us what a just world would look like.

Almsgiving is the other part- not just money, although that can be important. It’s also about all that we can do to remake the world. For many, TIME is the alms often hardest to give- being present to someone alone in the world – a person tutoring in a literacy program or working in a soup kitchen. Almsgiving is a year-round habit, but we need Lent to put ourselves into such a habit.

When fasting and almsgiving are present, we have a place for prayer- Sunday Eucharist, Evening prayer, Scripture reading etc. Fasting and almsgiving make us more alive and more aware of what we need to pay attention to.

So, is it lint or Lent? You decide.

Carol Pisani