Summary: explanation of the season of Lent
WHAT IS LENT?
Last Wednesday we celebrated Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. While I was eating my share of pancakes at a Shrove Tuesday dinner, someone asked me just exactly what is Lent, which started me thinking. For those of us raised in the church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church), we never really talked about what Lent is. We just knew we had to be on our best behavior and give up something (the most common being chocolate).
The name word is a German word for Spring (lencten) and the Anglo-Saxon name for March – lenct –because Lent usually occurs in March. This is another example of Christianity borrowing from other traditions through the ages to help make worship more familiar to the people.
In many places around the world, the last day before Lent (known variously as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnivale) is celebrated as a last fling before the solemn days of Lent. Carnival is the common name for the celebration of Shrove Tuesday because people were expected to fast by abstaining from meat during Lent and the term carnivale is Latin for “farewell to meat.”
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, the day when the ashes from the burned palms from last Palm Sunday are used to place a mark of the cross on our foreheads. As it says in the Bible, from dust we came and to dust we shall return.
Lent is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is preparation through prayer, repentance, charity and self-denial for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the suffering and death of Jesus, ending with Easter Sunday and the celebration of the His resurrection.
Traditionally, Lent is forty days long, starting with Ash Wednesday and ending with the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as preparation for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days.
It doesn't take too much reading of the Bible to see that 'forty' is a magic number, not only for Christians but also for a lot of other faiths:
• Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai when God gave him the Ten Commandments
• The great flood lasted forty days
• Moses and the Hebrew people wandered for forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt.
• Jesus lay in the tomb for forty hours before His resurrection
• The forty days of Lent also represent the time that Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry. During those forty days he faced temptation and doubt, purified Himself for His upcoming ministry.
It is a tradition that the season of Lent be celebrated by fasting, both from food and parties, prayer, and also a time for reflecting on our lives in preparation for the resurrection of Jesus.
In earlier times, days of fasting were established, when only one meal a day could be eaten with no meat or dairy. And Fridays were specified as non-meat (I can remember as a child that Friday was fish and macaroni and cheese day). These dietary restrictions have been, for the most part lifted. In place of these are suggested donations to charity and doing social justice work.