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Ash Wednesday

March 9, 2011

Reflection by Fr. Michael Himes

Lent is a season of preparation. In the early centuries of the church’s history, most Christian communities celebrated Baptism only once a year, during the vigil from Holy Saturday night to Easter morning. Throughout the year those who wished to be baptized enrolled their names with the local bishop and received some instruction in the Christian faith. Starting several weeks before Easter they were summoned by the bishop to begin a more intensive preparation and instruction. During this season when those about to be baptized prayed, fasted, reflected and readied themselves for their commitment to a new way of life, the members of the community prayed for and with them and encouraged them to make ready for the step they were about to make. The weeks before Easter thus became both a time for those entering the church to prepare for Baptism and those already baptized to recall and reawaken their own baptismal dedication.

I suspect, however, that most Catholics today, were they asked what Lent is, would reply that it is a season of penance. To be sure, repentance is an important theme of the Lenten season in that our commitment to life of Christ in communion with the people of God always entails rejecting sin and doing penance for it. But that is not the central focus of Lent.  It is not primarily about penance; it is about Baptism. For those of us who were baptized long ago, and especially for those who (like me) were baptized as infants and have no memory of what is or should be the most important sacramental moment of our lives, Lent is a forty-day communal retreat in preparation for renewing our baptismal promises once again this year.

The baptismal promises first made in our names by our parents and Godparents are not statements of acceptance of central Christian beliefs. They are “promises,” that is things to which we pledge ourselves, not simply acknowledgements that particular doctrines are true.  The first baptismal promise, “Do you believe in one God, the maker of heaven and earth?” is not an invitation to reject atheism or polytheism. I don’t need forty days to consider those options.  Rather, the question is whether I believe that there is a maker of all things, one who gives meaning and purpose to life who is the final judge of whether my life has embodied that meaning and purpose, and that I am not God. Do you believe that your life has value and meaning and that you are not the source of that value or the giver of that meaning or the ultimate decider of the success of your live? Do you affirm that God exists and that you are not God? That is a question not lightly answered.

The second promise, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?” is not an inquiry into our Christological beliefs or knowledge of the gospels. What I am asked is if I can affirm that, although I am not God, what I am—a human being—is of such goodness and importance that the one who is in the form of God chose to become human like me. Can you believe in the staggering goodness and value of being a finite human being? Another question which requires much more than casual acquiescence.

The third baptismal promise may, in fact, be the most difficult for many of us today: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?” This could seem to be a kind of catch-all question about our ideas concerning what have sometimes been called “the Last Things.” The nub of the question, however, is the conjoining of the Holy Spirit and the church. Do you believe that the Spirit of God is to be found not first of all in you or in me but in us? At a time when many, many intelligent, responsible, well-meaning people say that they are religious or spiritual but do not wish to be part of an institutional religion or church (and let us humbly and candidly admit the church has given them plenty of good reasons not to want to be a part of it), this baptismal promise asks us to affirm that the primary locus of the Spirit of God is not to be found in each of us individually but in all of us together, that the life of God is to be sought in communion with one another. 

I need at least forty days to reflect on these commitments and to consider my response this year. Every Ash Wednesday I say—as much to me as to anyone else—to be very careful not to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord by publicly perjuring ourselves at the Easter Mass. When I am asked to renew my baptismal promises this Easter, I ought to have the decency (if nothing else) not to affirm my conviction and pledge my allegiance to claims that I do not accept. I ought not stand before God on Easter this year and say I believe what in fact I do not. I (and I suggest you) need to think long and hard about renewing our baptismal promises. That is, after all, what Lent is all about. And I am very glad that I have forty days to consider my answers.

Alumni Responses to Ash Wednesday's Reflection

guest — Well Fr. Himes, you've done it again. You've given us some very profound promises to ponder.  I fear I've frequently given rote answers to these questions over the years, occasionally responding with silence to some of them in years I was struggling with my beliefs. I see I have my work cut out for me this Lent.

guest — Thank you, Father Himes for realigning my perspective on Lent. I am certain I never considered this meaningful approach to Easter before.

Roshini Rajkumar 93 — Every Lent I challenge myself to take stock: to ask myself why I'm a Christian, am I living in a Christian manner, and can I deepen my understanding of my faith and spirituality in general. Thanks Fr. Himes for your addition to this year‘s journey.

guest — Thank you for an insightful and thought-provoking reflection. I feel I have a renewed perspective on Lent and what I can do to make it a genuinely meaningful time in my life.

guest — Thank you for this gift from Fr. Himes. I am looking forward to his Lenten Reflections during this Lenten Season. I have to admit that I have renewed my Baptisimal vows at Easter Mass every year without reflection. It is a little scary to reflect on vows that were made for me during infancy. What is one to do if one has difficulty accepting these vows as adults?

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