Lenten signs

Rituals are like spinning tops—they keep changing direction around a still centre. Lent is a good example. At its centre is attention to the kind of death that leads to life, the life that overcomes death. But in Europe, its edge is imagery of green growth that follows a bleak winter. In Australia, its resonance is in the return of foliage to burned trees and burnt land.

The celebration of Lent has also spun around the compass. Its stable centre is its association with Easter, the memory of the death and rising of Jesus Christ. People remembered that death through a fast that led to feast.

Easter was also the natural time for baptising adults who wished to follow the way of Jesus Christ. The long journey to faith, that took converts away from a path associated with death to discover God’s life among the disciples of Jesus, was associated with the dramatic story of Jesus’ way to life through death. The journey gathered pace at Lent, as the community came together in solidarity with those who were to be baptised. Those already part of the Christian community could share the journey of those waiting through fasting and praying. At Easter came baptism and celebration of what plenty was to be had.
Later, as the baptism of adults became a rarity, the journey to Easter was associated with the human experience of moral lapse and conversion. This focus on sin, however, had its costs. Because sin and virtue seem to be opposites, the emphasis on sin obscured the paradox of Easter—the discovery that life comes through death and not despite it. Concentration on sin, too, can be isolating in its emphasis on individual failure. Despite the sense of community engendered by receiving ashes together on Ash Wednesday, solidarity with others in the journey towards Easter became incidental. We could give up cigarettes for Lent without considering the burdens this might put on our family.

In common with other church seasons, Lent now grasps the imagination less intensely. In the Roman Catholic Church, its rituals emphasise solidarity—a common commitment to those in need through Project Compassion, and a common engagement in conversion through communal celebrations of reconciliation. But compared to the early church, there seems to be less imaginative connection between what we do in Lent and what Jesus Christ did in his journey from death to life. Our solidarity with our fellows in weakness does not bear clear signposts marked with life and death, betrayal and forgiveness, violence and peacemaking.

This Lent, however, promises to be different. At the beginning of Lent we pause at a crossroads. At Lent’s end, we shall have taken a path that will shape what we and our children throughout the world can expect for our lifetimes. Because the journey of Lent will be a public journey, the rituals by which we walk with one another and follow the steps of Jesus from death to life will also be public. On view will be the fears, the instinct for violence, calculation that finds the blood that falls on children to be an acceptable price and the lies and betrayals that had Jesus Christ taken to his death. They will be there to see in the way in which we and our leaders conduct ourselves. So will be the compassion that raised Jesus from death to life. It may be that for this Lent the most apposite liturgies will be peace marches, the best forms of prayer will be emails to consulates and politicians. 

Andrew Hamilton sj teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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