The season of Lent begins this week as we celebrate Ash Wednesday at 7:00. I wanted to offer a brief reminder about the season, where it originated and what it’s for in the life of the Christian Church.
Lent is 40 days in length—the length of time from the beginning was actually closer to 36 days and was considered a “tithe” of the calendar year. Even now as we celebrate Lent in the church it is still offering a tithe of our year to God for the purpose of prayer and reflection.
In the beginning, Lent was the season for preparing converts to enter into the life of the faith. These converts would be sequestered in a private place where they would be taught the “secrets” of the Christian faith. You say you didn’t know there WERE any secrets to the faith? Well, once upon a time there were. For instance the Lord’s Prayer was considered a secret of the faith. So was the Apostle’s Creed. The converts—all adults—would be taught the scriptures and the doctrines of the church in preparation for their baptisms. (We do a similar thing today with our confirmation class.)
In the beginning, baptisms happened ONLY on Easter Sundays. Some of the great churches of Europe still have beautiful, free-standing structures dedicated to doing only baptisms. They are still utilized for that purpose. These converts would then be allowed to join in with the church’s other sacrament, Holy Communion.
The word “Lent” is derived from the Latin word “lencten” which literally means “springtime.”
Today, the season is dedicated as a time of penance and serious soul-searching among the faithful as a way of preparing for the week of Passion—the death and resurrection of Jesus. Ash Wednesday is a fitting beginning as we all make our way to the altar, to go to our knees in confession, and to have ashes placed on our foreheads with the words, “from ashes you have come and to ashes you will return.”
The season culminates with Holy Week. Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. That same week, we will celebrate Maundy Thursday (from the Latin, “mandatum” or mandatory as the institution of the Last Supper), then a Good Friday “Tenebrae” service (commemorating the crucifixion in a service featuring light and shadow).
For many believers, the season of Lent has popularly become a time of sacrifice—specifically the “giving up” of something one likes as a way of engaging in a spiritual discipline. For some it might be giving up cokes or chocolate or some other kind of food. Others that I know not only give those kinds of things up, but they also calculate the cost of those items they are giving up and then donating that money to the church or to a worthy cause of their choice.
Whatever you do over the 40 days of Lent beginning Wednesday, be sure to do something that will help you connect or re-connect with God. If you are struggling with how to do that, let us help.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.