We are now at the beginning of the period of Lent and
many people are telling me what they have decided to ‘give up for Lent’. It
amazes me how many people, outside of the church, have no idea why they are
giving up something or what Lent is about, so I thought it would be a good idea
to remind ourselves why and how Lent has been observed among Christians
throughout the ages and how it can enrich our own spiritual journey in this day
Lent is the period of 40 days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season of reflection and preparation before the celebration of Easter. By observing the 40 days of Lent, Christians replicate Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and withdrawal into the wilderness and it is marked by fasting, both from food and festivities. It recalls the events leading up to and including Jesus’s crucifixion.
The Christian churches that observe Lent in the 21st century (and not all do significantly) use it as a time for prayer and penance. Only a small number of people today fast for the whole of Lent, although some maintain this practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.. It is more common these days for believers to surrender a particular pleasure such as favourite foods or alcohol or smoking. Whatever the sacrifice, it is a reflection of Jesus’ deprivation in the wilderness and a test of self discipline.
Why 40 Days? 40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture. In Genesis the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain. The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the ten commandments.
Why is it called Lent? Lent is an old English word meaning lengthen. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer.
The colour purple. Purple is the symbolic colour used in most churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals. Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty.
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Lent starts, it is a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent. It gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. In shriving, a person confesses their sins and receives absolution from them. The tradition is very ancient. Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote, ‘In the week immediately before Lent, everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him’.
During Lent there are many foods that some Christians – historically and today- would not eat, foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs and milky foods. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on Shrove Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that would not last the 40 days of Lent without going off. Pancakes became associated the Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches. In the services on this day, churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality. The use of ashes, made from the burnt palms from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic. The priest marks each worshipper on the forehead and says, remember you are dust and unto dust you will return, words spoken by God to Adam in Genesis 3:19. This marking of a cross reminds the worshippers that death comes to everyone, we should repent of our sins, we must change for the better, and God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, without God humans are nothing more than dust and ashes.
Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday. Palm Sunday celebrates Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, so when the crosses used in the Palm Sunday service are converted to ashes, worshippers are reminded that defeat and crucifixion swiftly followed triumph. By using the ashes to mark the cross on believer’s foreheads, symbolises, that through Christ’s death and resurrection, all Christians can be free from sin.
This is a very abridged version of the symbolism and the reasons of how and why we observe Lent, and could be a very useful tool for explaining to those of our friends who don’t know why they are ‘giving up something for Lent’, the true spiritual meaning of our observance and what it means to us as Christians.
The observant among you will have notices that is you count the number of days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, there are 46days and not 40. This is because in the Western churches, Sundays are not included, as these are feast days when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
Another way of observing Lent, is that rather than abstaining from some pleasure or food during Lent, which in this modern world has, for some, lost its meaning, is to do something positive each day. Each day make a deliberate decision to do something good for someone, it doesn’t have to be a major event, just things like, shopping, visiting or calling someone who doesn’t have visitors, shopping for someone, giving someone a lift, making someone smile putting some food in the food bin in church. The list is endless, but everyone can do something towards 40days of kindness
However you observe Lent, I pray that each one of us will be refreshed and revitalised on our spiritual journey.