Soon, we will be entering the most significant time in the year for Christians: the period of time between Ash Wednesday and Easter. This time allows us to give up something meaningful to ourselves in order to anticipate Christ’s death on Good Friday and Resurrection three days later on Easter Sunday.
As I pondered what I am going to do to honor the Lenten season, I figured I look back through history to see how different denominations in the Christian faith observe lent and how this tradition all ties together with Holy Week. As early as the third century, St. Irenaeus discussed Lenten preparation for Easter, talking about what the “forefathers” in faith- the apostles- did to prepare for Easter. However, in St. Irenaeus’ day, no church-wide consensus existed on how long the Lenten season should be. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) that “the 40 days of Lent” began to be discussed. St. Athanasius urged a 40-day fast, as did St. Cyril of Alexandria. Eventually, Pope St Leo made the determination that Christians must “fulfill with their fasts the apostolic institution of the 40 days,” an admonition that has remained in place ever since. Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the lenten season, inaugurates the penitential and prayerful attitude of Lent. On this day, blessed ashes are placed on the heads of the faithful as a sign of mortification of the flesh with the words, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” After Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday, Christians refrain from saying Gloria in excelsis and Alleluia as a reminder that Lent is a season of trials and tribulation. Extraneous music is also not used during the Lenten season.
Because this is such a solemn time, the following verses from scripture help me understand what Lent is all about. As the scripture reads, “Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Help us, God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake” (Psalm 78:8-9, NRSV). So, you may be asking yourself, “Why is Lent 40 days?” The number 40 is in fact so significant in the Bible and in history altogether. In Genesis, when the great flood happened, it rained for 40 days and nights. The Israelites when the prophet Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt spent 40 years living in the wilderness because of their sinful being. Not to mention Moses himself spending 40 days on Mt Sinai reviving the Ten Commandments for the Israelites. Even when Jesus spent time preparing for his ministry, he spent 40 days in the wilderness and also got tempted by Satan a few times. Lent is also a derived word from the Anglo-Saxon word to ‘lengthen’. It comes during a time where the days are getting longer so we have the theoretical ability to stretch out and grow in the spirit.
We should not, therefore, place too much emphasis upon our own efforts to prepare for Lent. Just as the sun was thought to do the work of ‘lengthening’ the days during early Springtime, so it is the sun in the sense of God’s warmth and light that does this work in our ‘lengthening’ and growing in Christ. This image provides a comfort for us in our busy modern world, where hyperactivity can become the norm. Our role during Lent is to cooperate with God’s grace and initiatives, in a sense to relax in the presence of God, rather than force the pace with our own efforts. Next week is a great time to truly think about what the significance of Lent means and what we can do to commemorate that moment in time.
Sources: osv.com, thinkingfaith.org