For those readers who do not practice Lent, and I am sure there are a few, bear with me while I tell you why I do.
First, what is Lent?
The word “Lent” means “spring” and comes from the Middle English lente, meaning “lengthen.” It signifies the “lengthening” of the days after long winter nights. The cold and darkness of winter is beginning to pass and spring is not too far behind. New life is near and the season reminds us of renewed spiritual life and growth.
When did the church begin to observe Lent?
As early as the second century, making it a much older Christian tradition than the celebration of Advent and Christmas. Irenaeus (130–202) wrote about Lent “going back to the time of our forefathers.” That’s pretty impressive in terms of its origins. It stands to reason that the early church observed this time because new converts were prepared for baptism and entry into the church at Easter and this time was a part of the process. It was also a time for those already baptized to “remember” and commit to renewal of their vows and spiritual life.
How long was Lent?
Today it is 40 days before Easter but then the time and length varied until tradition settled on it in the West. The East uses a different calendar thus it does not always line up with the West.
It was a season for hearing the Scripture (reading in our day is added), meditation, prayer, fasting and repentance. It is all focused on preparing for Easter.
Is this celebration rooted in any of the ancient creeds and councils?
Yes. The Council of Nicea (325) was the first general church council since that recorded in the Book of Acts at Jerusalem. This council did not mention Christmas but did prescribe the 40 days of Lent for the entire church both East and West. The early leaders of the church knew the importance of a yearly season that focused upon spiritual growth in this way.
Why does Lent come before Easter?
Easter is the greatest celebration in the church calendar and even the lowest of low church communities tends to do something to celebrate Easter. My very low church background always made quite a big deal out of Easter. The ancient church believed that the promise of Lent was a promise to keep a time of spiritual growth and renewal in preparation for Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter. Indeed, all the days of Holy Week are a part of the tradition of many churches.
Isn’t Lent really about earning something from God by giving something up?
This is one of the most mistaken abuses possible. We keep Lent not to earn or to simply give up something we enjoy but rather to live out the rhythms and graces of our spiritual life in Christ. This eternal life is our life right now. Lent is not about you getting God to love you more since he cannot love you more than he already does. It is about your love for him deepening. God’s infinite love should move you/us to celebrate and repent both. Lent brings us to this realization in a wonderful way if it is kept properly.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Celebrated yesterday, in the Western Church, it is the first day of Lent. Ashes are imposed on your forehead in the sign of the cross. This is done not to prove your piety or to look strange but rather to remind you that you are mortal and will turn to the dust and ashes of the earth someday. It is also a call to make a U-turn once again, to continual repentance and holy living.
What is this ultimately about?
It is all about Jesus, the life he gives to us freely and our acknowledging that we are his children and we need to continually repent and follow him as his disciples. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the light. During this season we should examine ourselves in a fresh way. Some will argue that we should do this every day. I do not dispute this but I also have found that life is filled with season, rhythms, cycles. Just as fall follows winter and spring follows the dark, cold night of winter so we live day-to-day. I begin each day with these reminders but I also have found Lent to be a powerful season in my life when I keep it in grace before the Lord who loves me.
I hope some of you are keeping Lent this year. If this is new to you share your story and tell others what this time means to you. In so doing you might light a new fire in the heart of many other pilgrims who follow Jesus with you.
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John, I am journeying through Lent intentionally this year. I wrote a blog post about it as well! It is a grace to me to have Lent as a preparation for the Holy Days. I agree with what you say about “giving up” things during lent. I try to think of it as “opening up to more” during Lent. For instance, I am trying to use a daily meditation guide during Lent.