In the Catholic faith, today is known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday. It is the last day of the carnival season that precedes the start of Lent on Wednesday. While this time of year is among the most sacred to Christendom, many of the underlying lessons could be beneficial to everyone.
The central tenet of Lent for Catholics is baptism. The Lenten season is a time spent preparing for baptism and for renewing the baptismal commitment that lies at the core of the season. As the website catholic.org states, “Our challenge today is to renew our understanding of this important season of the Church year and to see how we can integrate our personal practices into this renewed perspective.”
The importance of baptism as an aspect of Lent owes to three sources of influence.
The first is the paschal fast. Formal observance of Lent began in the fourth century, but its antecedent was the ancient paschal fast that started as a two-day observance but was gradually lengthened to 40 days preceding Easter.
The second aspect is the so-called “catechumenate,” which is a process whereby the “catechumen” (one is who is being taught or retaught the basic principles of church doctrine) prepares for baptism.
The third was the Order of Penitents, which was modeled on the catechumenate and sought a second conversion for those who had fallen back into serious sin after baptism. This too goes back to the fourth century. The Order of Penitents or simply Penitents is a time of confession where sinners would acknowledge their wrongdoings to church leaders and be assigned a penance to be carried out over a period of time. After completing the penance, the penitent individuals were reconciled by the bishop with a prayer of absolution offered in the midst of the larger church community. The activities assigned as penance take many forms, including repetitive prayer rituals, pilgrimages to holy sites and labor for the church and its congregates.
The modern use of ashes (placed on the forehead) at the beginning of Lent reflects the use of ashes by those entering the Order of Penitents in early church history. As the catechumens enter their final period of preparation for baptism, the penitents and the rest of the community accompany them on their spiritual journey and prepared to renew their baptismal vows at Easter.
As stated above, today is often called Shrove Tuesday. To “shrive” means to present oneself for confession, penance and absolution. This process is important as the journey through it requires deep introspection, prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
The popular conception of Lent is the time when one “gives up” something as a symbol of commitment to faith and discipline. In this act of sacrifice one sees all the aforementioned streams come into confluence. One is reminded through fasting and abstinence of their “hunger” for God, of their fortune and of the want experienced by others. One learns discipline in their person and renewal of their faith. One acknowledges the importance of helping the poor and troubled.
While these lessons emanate from the Catholic faith, they are also applicable from a purely secular standpoint. Contrition, discipline, generosity, acknowledgment of fortune, piety, humility, self-sacrifice… all of these lessons speak to an immutable truth larger than one faith. They are universal directives for rectitude and proper living. Moreover, they are lessons we should remember, not for 40 days in late winter, but for every day of every year.