January 31, 2018
Growing up, I went to a church that nominally celebrated the season of Lent. The pastor usually said something about Lent on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, but that was about it. Sometime during my college years, our church began holding an annual Ash Wednesday service. Like Christians around the world, my forehead would receive the black, cross-shaped mark created from the ash of last year's Palm Sunday branches. But even after my church started observing Ash Wednesday, there was rarely ever mention of Lent again until the kick-off of Holy Week nearly 6 weeks later. Over the years, I intuitively picked up bits and pieces of information about the meaning and purpose of Lent, but like many other evangelicals, I was never directly taught what Lent was all about. For those of you that are like me, let's see if we can plow through some of the basics of this important season of the church calendar.
Lent is the season of the Christian liturgical calendar beginning on Ash Wednesday and leading up to Easter. Lent lasts approximately 6 weeks. The season is 40 days long, but it's celebrated over 46 days. This is because each Sunday of Lent is considered a 'mini Easter' and is not counted as part of the 40 day Lent observance. Many people think of Lent as a particularly Roman Catholic practice, but Christians have observed the tradition of Lent since the early days of Christianity. Writings about the observance of Lent date back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. And today, many Christian traditions and denominations – including, but not limited to the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodist, and some Reformed traditions – regularly celebrate Lent. And recently, the practice has been growing among other evangelical traditions.
So, now we know when and how long Lent is and who observes it, but we haven't really tackled what it's all about. Well, Lent is meant to be a time of spiritual preparation. The purpose of the 40 day length is to recall and parallel the 40 days of temptation that Jesus endured in preparation for his public ministry:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (Matthew 4:1-2)
Just as Jesus spent 40 days in the desert while spiritually preparing for his ministry, so too Christians are to spend Lent spiritually preparing for Easter. During this time, Christians are meant to focus on spiritual self-examination, renewal, and growth. In many traditions, Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence. This is where the common "I'm giving up meat or chocolate for Lent" idea comes from. But, in addition to self-denial, Lent is also a time of active practices like alms-giving and acts of mercy, forgiveness, repentance and prayer. Many Christians 'give up' something during Lent in order to spend more time, money, or attention on the active practices previously mentioned. These practices of denial and action are meant to work in unison to prepare the heart to experience anew the power of Christ's suffering, death, and ultimately, resurrection during Holy week.
As I alluded to above, Holy Week is the culmination of the Lent season. It begins with Palm Sunday, followed by Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Dark Saturday and finally Easter Sunday. This week traces the time from Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the Last Supper, where he foretold his betrayal and death, to his crucifixion on the cross, his death and finally his victorious resurrection on Easter Sunday! It is a week of great spiritual significance and one that deserves the preparation of our hearts and spirits. It is for this very reason that Lent is part of the Christian calendar. Humbly observed, Lent can help keep us from racing toward Easter without remembering the sorrow and sacrifice that led to the cross. Lent allows us the necessary time and space to reflect more fully on the cross, and thereby deepens and enriches our experience of Easter. May we all remember this Lent to pause, reflect, abstain and act as we focus anew on the meaning of the cross.
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