As the church begins another Lenten season, I recall a Socratic-type exchange that one of my seminary professors initiated with us many years ago. "What is the first thing that comes to mind," he asked, "when you hear the word '?" Our answers were conventional. Lent means "penance" and "giving things up." When it became obvious that no one was about to give the answer he was looking for, he finally said, in benign exasperation, "Spring!" The students looked at one another with arched brows, as if to say, "Where did that come from?"
In hindsight however, our teacher was right. The Middle English word for "Lent" is Lenten, which means "springtime." Lent and spring are indeed inextricably linked : at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. But a more liturgically correct answer would have been "Easter," because the Lenten season actually exists to prepare the local faith community and the universal church for the celebration of the greatest feast in its liturgical year.
Fifty years ago, we young seminarians, and most other Catholics as well, could not have given such a liturgically sophisticated answer. Indeed the term "Easter Vigil" wasn't in common use then. The comparable celebration was knows only as Holy Saturday. It yielded the longest (and possibly dullest!) liturgical ceremony of the entire year, and attracted only a handful of people. The service was held at 7:00AM (not as now late in the evening with Mass at midnight). It included one lengthy reading after another from the Old and New Testaments : all in Latin : along with a series of mysterious rites involving fire and a candle at the back of a darkened church.
The Easter Vigil nowadays is seen as the culmination of the church's liturgical year. Perhaps not every Catholic knows that, but many who attend Mass regularly do. The fact that the Lenten season is essentially a preparation for Easter becomes more vividly evident when at the Easter Vigil the catechumens are called forward with their sponsors to be baptized and confirmed. A while later they make their First Communion along with the rest of the Eucharistic community.
The history of Lent however is a bit more complicated than the Easter Vigil rites, which are now conducted entirely in the vernacular languages and with full lay participation as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, music ministers, ministers of hospitality and so forth. During the first three centuries, most Christians prepared for Easter simply by fasting for two or three days beforehand : a short Lent indeed! In some places however, the "paschal feast" was extended to the entire week before Easter Sunday and became known as Holy Week. In Rome itself, the paschal fast probably lasted for three weeks; but by the fourth century it had developed into our modern Lent of forty days.
The conventional belief has been that the forty-day period was modeled on the forty-day fast that Jesus endured in the desert (Luke 4:13); but more recently liturgical scholars have concluded that the development of Lent was also influenced by a different forty-day fasting tradition: an ascetical one based on imitating Jesus' life, which began immediately after the feast of the Epiphany in early January. This post-Epiphany fast, with its emphasis on prayer and penance, was especially popular among monks. Nevertheless these penitential themes did not become dominant until the original conception of Lent, as a period of spiritual and catechetical formation to prepare for Baptism at the Easter vigil, began to fade in the fifth and sixth centuries.
It took many more centuries (and the full liturgical renewal of Vatican II) to bring about a restoration of this original meaning of the Lenten season as a preparation for Easter. The centerpieces of this retrieval effort were the restoration of the Holy Week Rites by Pope Pius XII in 1956 and the conciliar renewal of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in the following decade. But the connection of "Lent" and "Spring" still works too.