Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday March 2, 2022, which is 46 days before Easter Sunday. Our English word “lent” comes from the Old English word lencten, meaning spring season. Contemporary Dutch still uses the word lente for springtime.
Our season of Lent as a penitential/personal renewal time prior to the arrival of Easter Sunday was created at the Council of Nicea in 325. It commemorates the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, before beginning his public ministry.
The carnival celebrations which in many cultures traditionally precede Lent are seen as a last opportunity for excess before Lent begins. Some of the most famous are the Cologne Carnival in Germany, the New Orleans Mardi Gras, and the Rio de Janeiro carnival.
Last week, in my Truth Decay column, I wrote about the need for ongoing education about theological history and biblical studies. A friend asked me about the origin of the seven sacraments. He had seen a video about the sacraments by Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, noting that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1210)
So for Lent 2022 I would like to explore the history and contemporary significance of “the seven sacraments.” I hope you will find it an interesting and worthwhile historical journey. As I have said before, our understandings do change. Church doctrines and theological understandings do change. Some have to change. Catholic sacramental doctrines are still shaped by the viewpoint of medieval Aristotelian Scholasticism.
Yesterday, looking at the sun on a cold wintry day, I was thinking…astronomers, looking at the sun in the early middle ages, invented an explanation that made sense based on what they saw in the sky by day and by night. The idea that the earth was stationary, that the sun and moon were round bodies that circled the earth, and that the stars were lights affixed to the “heavens” made sense to everyone.
In the early seventeenth century, however, when Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and a small group of astronomers turned telescopes towards the “heavens,” more accurate observations could be made. The geocentric model of the “heavens” was first questioned, then discredited, and finally replaced with a heliocentric model that put the sun at the center and made the earth one of the planets. Later observations of course have revealed that we live in an immense universe of planets, stars, and galaxies. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are at least an estimated 100 billion planets. Discoveries continue.
Today our historical-theological telescopes are observing old doctrines and theological understandings. Our eyes look at the past but are really focused on today. The changing world.
My initial interest in sacramental theology came from my old professor, Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009) – in his classes and his monumental 1963 book Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Schillebeeckx, who was truly my mentor, opened my eyes and cleared my vision.
More recently my sacramental focus has been adjusted by articles and books by theologian-of-the-sacraments friend Joseph Martos. In his book Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments: Letting Go of Doctrines and Celebrating What’s Real, for example, Joe takes us back through church history, from the first Christian communities, through the Middle Ages, and then to today. He proposes a contemporary sacramental way of life that is honest about the past and builds for today and for tomorrow.
Joe stimulated my current reflection about sacraments when he wrote: “Catholic sacramental doctrine is historically incoherent…inconsistent with its origins.” He and I had many discussions about that. We even chuckled about offering continuing ed courses for bishops and seminary professors.
My focus in what I plan to explore this Lent is hardly anti-Catholic but should be of interest to contemporary Catholics — as well as all Christians. Sacraments are signs of life.