Several weeks ago, many of us let someone rub ash on our faces.
Let that sink in.
Somebody smeared ash. On your face. While you stood there and let them. They probably even said something to you about the fact that you are going to die someday, or they compared you to dirt, or they told you that you have sinned and are in need of repentance.
Someone new to all this would be forgiven for judging that act as either rude or highly bizarre. And yet, there you are: ash-faced, mortal, sinner. Lent is chock-full of practices like this, of concepts that might seem strange and alien, even to regular churchgoers. So how might we understand, then, what is going on here? How might we open our hearts to the divine Illumination for the sake of which Lent was invented?
In its first centuries, the Christian church exploded in membership. It did so with no apparent evangelism strategy and little to no missiological reflection. As practitioners of an only marginally licit religion in its best years, Christians gathered on the Lord’s Day wherever they could. They often met in homes, and they didn’t advertise their presence. At times they actually discouraged spreading an awareness of their gatherings.
And when the early Christians met together, they practiced the opposite of seeker-sensitive worship. Although there was a great deal of variety across time and space, a typical process during the first three centuries required a newcomer (often called an “inquirer”) to have a sponsor from among the faithful. The inquirers and the sponsors would then submit to an invasive interview in which they were challenged to prove the candidates’ willingness to change their lives. Questions were asked about the candidates’ vocations and their habits, whom they socialized with, and how they spent their free time. Sometimes called the “First Scrutiny,” this interview was a prerequisite before a person was even permitted to attend worship.
After completing this interrogation, inquirers were promoted to the catechumenate, that class of persons undergoing a period of instruction in the faith. Catechumens were welcome to attend worship, but they were ushered out of the gathering following the sermon—they were not yet ready for the climax of worship: saying the creed and participating in the Eucharist. They were not even allowed to witness these parts of the liturgy.
Catechumens were instructed and challenged through, among other things, sermons that were preached by their local bishop or other teachers in the church. Many of the great preachers of ancient Christianity, from Origen to Augustine, left us hefty stacks of sermons where they specifically address the catechumens, either in a typical worship gathering or in the context of daily catechesis sessions, which were held very early in the morning, often before sunrise. A catechumen would typically remain in this learning state for about three years, though in some cases, individuals moved faster in this stage or remained a catechumen for even longer.
Imagine the devotion that took. Scores of people in the ancient world were willing to gather almost every day for several years, learning about the Scriptures and learning about how Christians behave, slowly changing the ways they thought, acted, and even felt. They did this while being left in the dark about many of the community’s most important beliefs and practices. And they did this knowing full well that the members of this community could meet the bloodier end of Roman swords and gladiator shows.
To progress beyond the catechumenate and into proper baptized membership in the church, catechumens underwent an even more intense preparatory period that included more concentrated practices of fasting, teaching, and prayer, as well as several additional rounds of scrutiny and exorcism. And the catechumens were finally allowed to hear the gospel, often learning an early version of the Apostles’ Creed. This was a time of illumination and enlightenment, an opportunity for catechumens to grapple with the gospel itself—practically, spiritually, and intellectually. It was a season of reflection that over a dozen or more centuries evolved into what we today call Lent.
Only after this intensive proto-Lenten period of formation were the catechumens finally baptized. At just past midnight, on the first moments of Easter Sunday, they would enter the baptismal waters and then, finally, they were invited to join the main gathering to witness—and taste—their first Eucharist.
By the time a prospective Christian got to this point, they had been at it for years. They would have changed a lot of their behaviors along the way. They probably looked at the world differently than they did before they embarked on this journey. In some cases, they may have been forced to change their mode of employment. And if they hadn’t done such things, the leaders of the church wouldn’t have let them anywhere near the font. Becoming a Christian was difficult and required a level of commitment almost unfathomable to us in the church today.
Although Lent has its roots in the early church’s catechetical practices, these days Lent is a practice more for the putatively mature and serious than for the novice or neophyte. Pastors cook up all kinds of suggestions to encourage Christians to join in, but many church members in good standing will not do so. Others will do so only nominally or will engage with Lent by “giving up” something like chocolate or caffeine. These latter folks may choose their chocolate sacrifices with sincere hearts and with an authentic desire for some kind of change (often more closely related to physical than spiritual health), but they will often lack much grounding for their actions beyond their sincerity and desire. And indeed, hardly anyone in a church today could plausibly claim for themselves the level of devotion and commitment the early Christian would have reached before even beginning their final Lenten approach to the baptismal waters.
Yet Lent is how the first Christians made Christians. For them, mere students of the faith—catechumens—went into the process, and duly baptized Christians came out. Church membership was hard-won. It was the result of a years-long effort of learning, spiritual practice, and moral formation. To be baptized was to have a place in a tight-knit community that worshiped God and loved one another. Being baptized also meant there was a possibility of being fed to the lions in the nearest arena while thousands of your neighbors cheered (for the lions).
In our world, as in theirs, the church is a voluntary society. Compulsory church membership and attendance was not a part of the late-antique Roman Empire, and neither is it a part of the late-modern Western world. But the differences in practice between ancient and modern church cultures are stark. One valued faithfulness and the formation of Christian character at any cost; the other at times seems to prize hospitality and accessibility as its chief virtues. One grew exponentially; the other is in steady decline.
It is naive to suppose that we twenty-first-century Christians could easily recover the seriousness of those first few centuries. It is even more naive to suppose that we could do so by mimicking their practices and methods. Supposed golden ages tend to appear golden only some years later, and we must not chase wildly after them, thirsty though we may be, as if we were chasing after a mirage in the desert.
But at the same time, I believe there might be a gift here. A great number of church renewal movements began with a serious look backward. The Reformation era, the Wesleyan revivals, and the Oxford Movement, to name three divergent examples, all drew much of their inspiration and at least some of their energy from devouring works written by early Christians from such places as Alexandria, Cappadocia, and Hippo. If we, too, were to look in such places, we surely wouldn’t find quick fixes. But we might find wisdom. We might find the ability to look at our own age with sober eyes. We might learn some things we weren’t expecting. We might even, by God’s grace, find some lost key to reviving our churches and the faith we preach and too-anemically believe.
We in the West today suffer from a crisis of faith. I see it in statistics and studies. I see it even in communities located in the so-called Bible Belt. I see it in pews and folding chairs, in sanctuaries and fellowship halls, and I see it in seminaries and in pastors too. But my fear runs deeper than that. I’m afraid that we late moderns don’t just lack faith. I suspect we don’t even believe in faith.
The early Christians might inspire us here. And I mean inspire quite literally. Perhaps through their example, God might breathe the Spirit back into our dry bones and make them live again. And I can’t shake the thought that maybe Lent itself could be a catalyst—right here, at our weirdest moment, this season in which at least a few consumerist Americans will play at saying no to their desires, in which we, overfed but spiritually starving, sometimes flirt with fasting, in which we, ever cynical, might for a moment make contact with faith.
Perhaps we need Lent because we, at our best, are all just catechumens in need of illumination and longing for change, for newness, for mystery. Maybe Lent is best understood even today as a season where some folks are just trying to be Christians.