With all that is currently going on in the world, the season of Lent began on March 2 with Ash Wednesday. It slid by so quickly, it was hardly noticeable. Many folks may be asking, what is Ash Wednesday, and what is Lent? What is all this, and why?
In fact, there are no biblical references to Lent, so, much like the season of Advent, the season of Lent was created and sustained by the Christian church. We think that Lent may have started about the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and it became a sacred season on the church’s yearly liturgical calendar. It was a time of baptisms and acts of penance. Traditionally, emphasis was placed on fasting, self-denial and spiritual devotion for 40 days. The 40 days replicate the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness; he withdrew into the desert, where he was tempted, but boldly prepared for his ministry (accounts in all the Synoptic Gospels).
The word “Lent” is derived from a Latin word that means “fortieth.” In Old English, the word “Lencten” was used for “spring season.” In any event, from ancient times, Lent is a fasting period, or “the great fast.” For 40 days, the focus is on prayer, penance, “mortifying the flesh,” self-denial, almsgiving and repentance of sin. The purpose is to become closer to God and to remember the tremendous sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
In more modern times, Lent is observed in many different ways in different churches, in different countries, all across the world. It has become a time to focus on the spiritual disciplines, daily devotions, prayer and abstention from food and festivities (except on Sundays). Many people even today abstain from eating meat. Flowers are removed from worship centers, and church images such as the cross are veiled. Again, the point is to focus on God, draw nearer to him, and recall the passion of Jesus. It is a time of reflection and repentance.
“Ash Wednesday” was derived from the act of using the ashes of burned trees to form a symbol on the human skin. A priest places a cross on the person’s forehead to publicly disclose one’s devotion to the Christian faith during Lent. The ashes are an outward sign/symbol of an inward blessing for the upcoming Lenten season. Truly, Christ can bring new life and new beauty from ashes.
With a bit of irony, “Fat Tuesday” is a riotous celebration, feasting and indulgence. The day before Ash Wednesday is called “Mardi Gras,” which means “Fat Tuesday.” As a preface to the abstinence, denial, and sorrowful reflection, people have “one last fling,” the night before Lent begins. The festivities of New Orleans, LA and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are famous for their “Mardi Gras” parades and celebrations. They are not, however, known for their piety during Lent! In fact, I went skiing on “Fat Tuesday” this year and met a large group of vacationers (83 people) from Louisiana who were in Colorado because their children were out of school for the 3 days of Mardi Gras. So, traditions and rituals have changed drastically.
Even so, the last week of Lent is known as “Holy Week,” or “Passion Week,” which is essentially the nine days leading up to and including Easter, Resurrection Sunday. It is the culmination of Jesus’ passion and our thoughtful recollection of the significance of the season. In another blog, we will look at the last week of Jesus’ life more closely.
In the meantime, how can we use the Lenten season as a preparation for Passion Week, and for Easter in particular? Were there traditions that you knew as a child that were a part of your Lenten focus – like “giving up something for Lent?” If so, what did they mean to you? Today, as the world mourns the war in the Ukraine, and our prayers focus on daily news events, is it possible to take time to focus on Jesus, and on what he did for humanity – for you and me?
Grace and peace. Amen.