Purification and enlightenment in preparation for baptism are both the origin and raison d’être of this season of Lent. “The annual observance of Lent is the special season for the ascent to the holy mountain of Easter. Through its twofold theme of repentance and baptism the season of Lent disposes both the catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery” (CE 249). Given this, I find myself wondering what is with the dry desert motif prevalent in so many churches? Do we not have a saying, ‘April showers brings May flowers’? I, for one, would like the flowers of the resurrection to bloom and so would like for the rain of renewal to come down in order to crack open the seeds sown in the darkness which must germinate before they can break free and reach up toward the light.
It is true that we begin the season of Lent (Lat. Quadragésima, that is, the “forty days” before Easter) by imposing ashes and it is also of course the case that right after Jesus was baptized that the Spirit drove him into the desert (a story we hear every year on Lent I). On both days, however, we sing as our responsorial psalm the penitential psalm par excellence, Psalm 50/51, which gave rise to the Asperges me antiphon (“Wash me…”) which classically has been used at high Masses to accompany the Sprinkling Rite as the faithful enter the church during all seasons (except Easter when the antiphon Vidi Aquam, “Water of Life,” Psalm 117, is sung). Moreover on Lent I (cycle B) we proclaim the story of the covenant God established with all creation through Noah following the flood, which concludes with a rainbow as a sign, the rainbow itself (as my daughter reminded me playing yesterday with the hose) resulting from the perfect interplay of water and sunlight so that the former reveals to us the latter in all its constituent components allowing us to look upon that which would otherwise be foreclosed to our gaze. This story of the covenant God established through Noah is, as St Peter tells us on the same Sunday, a prefiguring of the baptismal covenant and thus we come to see that the inundation and drowning of purification necessarily leads us, according to the logic of the Cross—the paschal narrative through which Christians read everything—to the mountain of rebirth in the Spirit. No matter how you slice it, the powerful cleansing water motif of the season of Lent cannot be overstated and is, in fact, the preeminent symbol of not only these early days but in fact all of the forty days wherein we prepare to enter into or renew our baptismal covenant.
On Lent II we are taken up onto the heights whereon the dazzling and glorious light is revealed as Christ allows us to see his inmost nature by peering deeply through that cloak of humanity God deigned to take upon himself in the Incarnation of the Son so that, like the refracted light of the rainbow, we might be able to gaze upon the face of God is and thus enlightens those whom he has elected. Yesterday, on Lent III, we begin in the shadow of another mountain, Gerizim, where we find Jesus initiating the encounter with the woman who wanted merely to be acknowledged and who, in being named and chosen by our Lord, is given living water. This living water is of course a prefiguring of baptism but the living water also echoes another story of water which saves, namely, the water from the flinty rock which rushes forth in order to end the grumbling in the desert as we heard in our first reading proclaimed this morning. While the woman’s appearance at noon bespeaks her social ostracization, it further reminds us that with the sun directly overhead it enlightens the deep water of the well into which she can peer for the first time. As we plumb the depths of this rich pericope we can elucidate much about the path discipleship and also plunge into the political implications of water since, as many would contend, it was the discovery of slaked-lime cisterns, such as that beside which Jesus stands at Sychar, which allowed the Hebrews to take root in the highlands of Judea. Roman aqueducts, so vital to urban life and one of the perceived goods by which conquered peoples accepted the imperial yoke, are here contrasted to the water offered by one who is truly deified unlike Caesar who declared himself so. Today millions continue to suffer for want of access to water that brings life as scarce resources continue to be unjustly distributed by those who lord it over others rather than freely giving as we witnessed in this Gospel passage.
Next Sunday, on Lent IV, we’re back at a pool, a pool where beggars sit waiting for someone to carry them down into the water when it flows. But here we meet a man who has no one to carry him to the water to whom, therefore, Jesus comes. Jesus makes mud of saliva and dust—the same dust we were reminded on Ash Wednesday was both our origin and our destiny—and sends the man to the ‘Pool of Sending,’ which we might just as well gloss as the ‘Well of Missioning’ which is a perfect type of the baptismal font for all the baptized. There the man washes and proceeds to testify to Christ through a series of three interrogations by the leaders not unlike the three professions of faith accompanying baptism which is itself a mirror of the three chances Christians were given to renounce Christ before Roman authorities before being martyred for witnessing to faith. In so doing the man, purified by the waters and sharing the enlightenment he has received in having his eyes opened, becomes a disciple in acknowledging Jesus as Lord.
So, tell me again, why are we not using the Sprinkling Rite on Sundays of Lent? Tell me again why many have put dry sticks and stones amid desert scenes in our otherwise noble purple Lenten worship environment? Tell me again why the environment of our churches are not bathed in purifying water and illuminating light to reveal the full spectrum of God’s glorious covenant with his people throughout these Sundays of Lent?
To close, let me offer an alternative image to sands, sticks, and stones drawn from the Liber Naturae: Lent is pruning time. I have always used the beginning of Lent as the time to prune back the fruit trees at my home. If we prune too early the lingering threat of winter frosts could damage the trimmed limbs. If we delay too late we risk letting the plant become misshappen as it puts equal energy into crossed limbs which will eventually be prone to disease, an excess of buds limiting the quality of the fruit to be born, and competing branches that block one another’s access to the life-giving sunlight. Lent is analogously for us the time to reshape and plan for future growth by cutting away that which compromises growth. But Lent isn’t about the deadwood, it is about the tender shoots, the buds springing forth into our spiritual life and into our assemblies, namely the elect. Lent is also a time for planting, a time for burying in the ground that life we once had—the grain we salvaged from last year and from which we refrained from eating—only to water it(!) and await its fecundity to rise anew from the depths of death. This of course echoes the Gospel for Lent V, Lazarus Sunday, wherein we hear not only of Jesus’ raising Lazarus but also of his enjoining the disciples, as he does all of us, to “unbind him and let him go free.” This is an obvious prefiguring of the resurrection but it is also the perfect image of reconciliation, loosening those bonds for (literally: absolving) one another from whatever keeps us away from, whatever hinders our encountering Christ who comes to wash us and enlighten us even the point of descending to the depths of death so that we might be washed by his own Precious Blood and arise anew conformed to his image and likeness.
Let our Lenten environments and rituals speak in various ways the prayer of the Psalmist, “Cleanse me with hyssop (used to mark the Passover doorposts!), that I may be pure; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (51:9). Then will we be prepared atop the mountain of the Sacred Paschal Triduum to receive “a new heart, and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 36:25-26) poured out from Christ’s side and rushing upon us.