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The end of Lent

The following editorial by Andrew Britz, OSB, is titled “The end of Lent,” and was originally published in the March 19, 1997, issue of the PM. It is also included in his book Rule of Faith: as we worship, so we believe, so we live.

Holy Thursday, according to the ancient reckoning, was the 40th day, the last day of Lent. On this day, the order of penitence was celebrated. And a grand celebration it was. The public sinners, those out of communion with the church, were solemnly brought back into the fold so that all could celebrate Easter together as a healed community.

Even during the relatively short period when public penance was celebrated in its fullness, there was always a rather small number of Christians who came forward to have their sins forgiven. At all times, the vast majority of Christians celebrated the sacrament of reconciliation as members of a forgiving community, rather than as the ones publicly asking the community for forgiveness.

Thus, in the Holy Thursday liturgy, members of the community were asked to publicly affirm their acceptance of the “sinners” and pledge to them that in the future they would treat them as Christ-bearers and not as sinners.

It is interesting to note that one of the first major developments in the celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation was the proclamation at the beginning of Lent that everyone in the church was a sinner. The Holy Thursday liturgy, the church discovered early, did not work if it was “holy people” forgiving sinners.

Just as Jesus did not come as an outward sign of holiness but rather “in the likeness of our sinful flesh” (Rm 8:3; see 2 Cor 5:21), so the church proclaimed the forgiveness of sin, not from a position of holiness but as a community of sinful people.

At the heart of the liturgy, sinners forgave sinners, and pledged to treat each other as Christians, as Christ-bearers. This reconciliation, above all else, was the goal of Lent.

We as individuals and as community always stand in need of reconciliation. All of us harbour that dark part of our heart where we have allowed bitterness and hard feelings to fester. And, as community, we all have different dreams of what our church should be, and it is easy to conclude that our ideas of church are the best, the holiest, and that “the other side” has less than noble intentions.

More liberal-leaning Christians accuse those opposite of authoritarianism, of treasuring patriarchy. The conservatives love to call themselves “the real Catholics,” the faithful remnant who have the right to use virtually any ploy to weaken, if not outrightly destroy, those who have apostasized and now parade about in sheep’s clothing.

No dialogue is possible when one side declares it is right and the other side is wrong. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had to face this; even his dying a holy death did not soften his opposition.

We, as church, need to highlight the reconciliation aspect of the Holy Thursday liturgy; the Gospel of the washing of one another’s feet as a sign of the forgiveness of sin fits this very well. (In any case, the Easter Vigil is the time to highlight the eucharist, not Holy Thursday.)

We are asked to wash one another’s feet, not as a sign of our humility but as a sign of care and concern. This care and concern is to carry us into the mystery of the Lord’s death and on to the celebration of a healed community singing the marriage song of the Lamb.