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Mar8TueInformation about the Season of Lent, including what it means, when it starts and ends, how it originated, and how it sets the theme for Christian worship. March 8, 2011 by Major Bruce Power
The Teutonic word lent originally meant spring, but came to be associated with the period of time in the Church calendar leading up to the celebration of Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (this year on March 9) and spans 40 weekdays. The six Sundays of Lent are not included because Sunday marks the celebration of Christ's resurrection and is not to be a day of fasting. The climax of Lent comes in Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday and includes Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, Good Friday and the Saturday before Easter.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
How did Lent come to be observed as it is today? The evidence suggests that at first only a few days of fasting directly before Easter Sunday were observed, but as time passed a lengthier period of strict observance was adopted. By the fifth century, some believed a 40-day fast had been established by the Twelve Apostles, but this seems unlikely given the diversity of practice in Easter preparations prior to that time.
Though a 40-day period of fasting was eventually to prevail, at first this was adhered to in a variety of manners. Sunday was never included, but in some places the fast period lasted for eight weeks rather than the six that had become standard. This was the result of not including Saturday or Sunday in the calculation of the 40 days of Lent.
Even the reason for 40 days is not clear. Most often the connection is made to Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days during the temptation, in preparation for His mission. This analogy itself draws on traditions connected with similar desert times in the lives of Moses and Elijah (see Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2; Exodus 24:18; 1 Kings 19:8). A connection has also been made to the period of 40 hours Jesus spent in the tomb.
Over the centuries a variety of approaches to fasting during these days has also characterized the keeping of Lent. At first a very rigorous fast was followed. Then the custom of breaking in the evening for a small, simple meal prevailed. For centuries, fasting from meat and fish during Lent was typical. Later, certain days of fasting within the Lenten period became accepted practice.
Eventually, for most traditions, Lent was observed by the abstinence from certain foods or pleasures during the season. For Salvationists, the idea of self-denial comes from these later Lenten traditions. The practice of giving up something we enjoy in honour of Christ, then contributing what we would have spent on chocolate, coffee or movies to care for the needs of others, picks up on these ways of marking the days of Lent. And of course, the very act of denying ourselves is to remind us of the sacrifices made by Jesus on our behalf.
Confession of Sins
Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten period. Tradi-tionally, the worshipper went to church the day before to confess his sin and repent. Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, derives its name from the Old English word describing one's appearance before the priest for confession. Mardi Gras, another name for the same day derived from French, literally means “fat Tuesday,” and marks the last day to indulge in life's pleasures before the fast of Lent begins. Unfortunately this celebration has often taken a turn never intended by the Church.
On Ash Wednesday, worshippers who have confessed their sin have their heads or foreheads marked with ashes as a symbol of their repentance. Thus begins a time of mourning and sorrow for the death and pain that sin brings into the world. It is a time when penitent individuals recognize that there is nothing they can do to earn their own salvation, and seek to humble themselves before God in dust and ashes. As Christians, we recognize the price paid by Jesus—His death on the cross—to atone for our sins. We also prepare ourselves to participate fully in the joy and transformation of His resurrection. But first we journey with Him through the darkness and pain and suffering of the road to the cross.
Identification with Christ
As we reflect on the path Jesus took in the desert, overcoming temptation to embrace the will of His Father, we are called to strive to overcome those passions and desires that would separate us from God and direct us on to paths that celebrate power and status over humility and service.
As we journey with Jesus toward the cross we are invited into the fellowship of His sufferings. We prepare to lose ourselves in God so that we might find ourselves alive—transformed with our risen Lord to live life with newness, in fellowship with God and in obedience to His purposes in our world. This is the real purpose of Lent.