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.

  • Jack

8 thoughts on “Lent

  1. How wonderful! So looking forward to the historical and contemporary insights you will be sharing with us. Thanks again for your fascinating, interesting and joyful blog, Jack

  2. Dr. Jack, the Lenten cycle of readings in the lectionary inspired a trove of historical hymnody. I retired from a career as church music director, and I miss tracing the lyrical journey in the hymnals that required careful sifting every year, whenever the task of hymn selection was in my lap, because of the historical references that don’t comport with our “reality” today, nor with the trajectory upon which we are heading.

    With keen anticipation of your project for us this Lent, the “journey” continues, into the future, because that is what the present makes of the past. For many, religion is a deal, a transaction. But spirituality is a pilgrimage, a caravan, a safari, a voyage toward an unknown stage of becoming more human, a risk, no refunds, no insurance policy on default. Along the way, at certain oases, my baggage is unpacked, sorted, and reloaded. Something is always left behind, maybe for the benefit of others. Perhaps that is why the itinerant life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, or Jeshoah ben Miryam, is crucial for us, for are we not all migrants? In struggling to answer the Master’s question, “Who do you say I am?” the task involves answering honestly my own question, “Who am I?” in my material, , transitional, mortal condition and situation.

    Spirituality “matters” because it is the quest to reconcile my individual authenticity as a person with social coherence in terms of the church and the state, religion and nihilism. Personally I think that life, time and space is sanctified by Mother Nature in her tender indifference, and that there is more behind the canonical seven sacraments of historical Catholic doctrine, worth unpacking for a closer look.

    I am grateful to you for this soul-piercing exercise, and the chance to make this blog-retreat with you all.

  3. I couldn’t say it better than Gabrielle: “Thanks again for your fascinating, interesting and joyful blog, Jack”!!

  4. Dear Jack,
    Can’t wait for your wonderful thoughts and words to enlighten my Lent!
    Peace,
    Frank

  5. Dear Jack,
    Looking so forward to your thoughts, and bringing Light to my Lent.
    Best of Everything,
    Pat

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