Lent is a season of the Christian Year when Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. Lent is only a recent observance in the United Church. It began as a season of the Church for United Churches around the 1960s. Before that time, Lent and Advent really weren’t observed, not like in the Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic Churches where the church seasons have been observed for centuries.
Because we are new to the Lent season, we haven’t really developed any long-established patterns of what to do. So, lots of people do many different things as a Lenten discipline. Some people want to engage in self-discipline and deny themselves something like chocolate or sugar or alcohol or Facebook or watching the news. Others want to take on a new discipline like yoga or meditation or regular exercise or journaling. Self-denial and self-improvement seem to be the way of things in Lent. But “Why?” is the question. Why do we take on new disciplines in Lent?
What is Lent? – A Time Set Aside
Just as we set aside time to spiritually prepare for Christmas Day, it makes sense to set aside time to prepare for the two most important days of the Christian year. Lent is a time that offers us an opportunity to come to terms with the human condition we may spend the rest of the year running from. It brings our need for Christ to the forefront. Like Advent, Lent is a time to open the doors of our hearts a little wider and understand our faith a little deeper, so that when Good Friday and
eventually Easter comes, it is not just another day at church but an opportunity to receive the overflowing of blessings God has to offer.
So where does Lent come from, and how do we “do” Lent? The Lenten season developed as part of the historical Christian calendar and is typically celebrated by Catholics and mainline Protestant churches that follow a liturgical calendar. Although its format has varied throughout the centuries and throughout different cultures, the basic concept remains the same: to open our hearts to God’s refining grace through prayer and intentional reflection as we prepare for Holy Week. Lent traditionally lasts forty days, modelled after Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert, and ends on Good Friday. In the Western Church, Lent officially begins with a reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday (this year, falling on February 26th).
Lent began as a way for Christians to remind themselves of the value of repentance. The austerity of the Lenten season was seen as similar to how people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1-3; Jeremiah 6:26; Daniel 9:3). However, over the centuries Lenten observances have developed a much more “sacramental” value. Many Christians believe that giving something up for Lent is a way to attain God’s blessing. But the Bible teaches that grace cannot be earned; grace is “the gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). Also, Jesus taught that fasting should be done discreetly: “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to God, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:16-18).
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting aside time to focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, focusing on our behaviour is something we should be doing every day, not just for the forty days of Lent.
Shrove Tuesday is the term to refer to the day before Ash Wednesday (the liturgical season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday). This day is also known as Pancake Day because it is customary to eat pancakes on this day. In other parts of the world—for example, in historically Catholic and French-speaking parts of the United States and elsewhere—this day is called Mardi Gras.
The reason that pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent is that the forty days of Lent form a period of liturgical fasting during which only the plainest foodstuffs may be eaten. Therefore, rich ingredients such as eggs, milk, and sugar are disposed of immediately prior to the commencement of the fast. Pancakes and doughnuts were, therefore, an efficient way of using up these perishable goods, besides providing a minor celebratory feast prior to the fast itself.
The word “shrove” is a past tense of the English verb “shrive,” which means to obtain absolution for one’s sins by confessing and doing penance. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the shriving (confessing) that Christians were expected to do prior to receiving absolution immediately before Lent.
Mardi Gras? What does that have to do with JESUS??
Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday.” It refers to the day before Lent starts. Since Lent always starts on a Wednesday, the day before is always a Tuesday. And it’s called “Fat” or “Great” because it’s associated with great food and parties.
In earlier times, people used Lent as a time of fasting and repentance. Since they didn’t want to be tempted by sweets, meat and other distractions in the house, they cleaned out their cabinets. They used up all the sugar and yeast in sweet bread before the Lent season started, and fixed meals with all the meat available. It was a great feast! Through the years Mardi Gras has evolved (in some places) into a pretty wild party with little to do with preparing for the Lenten season of repentance and simplicity. Oh well. But Christians still know its origin, and hang onto the true Spirit of the season.
So the real beginning of Lent is Ash Wednesday?
Yes. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, usually begins with a service where we recognize our mortality, repent of our sins, and return to our loving God. We recognize life as a precious gift from God and return our lives towards Jesus Christ. We may make resolutions and commit to change our lives over the next forty days so that we might be more like Christ. In an Ash Wednesday service, usually, a minister or priest marks the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead with ashes.
In Jewish and Christian history, ashes are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality, because when we die, our bodies eventually decompose and we become dust/ dirt/ash/whatever. Repentance, because long ago, when people felt remorse for something they did, they would put ashes on their head and wear “sackcloth” (scratchy clothing) to remind them that sin is pretty uncomfortable and leads to a sort of death of the spirit. This was their way of confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.
Where do the ashes come from?
On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem while people waved palms and cheered him on. Less then a week later, Jesus was killed. The palms that were waved in joy became ashes of sorrow. We get ashes for Ash Wednesday by saving the palms from Palm Sunday, burning them, and mixing them with a little water (like tears) or oil. It’s symbolic.
What do Christians do with ashes?
At an Ash Wednesday service, folks are invited to come forward to receive the ashes. The minister will make a small cross on your forehead by smudging the ashes. While the ashes remind us of our mortality and sin, the cross reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection (life after death) and forgiveness. It’s a powerful, non-verbal way that we can experience God’s forgiveness and renewal as we return to Jesus.
Why “DO” Lent? How do I start?
Are you searching for something more? Tired of running in circles, but not really living life with direction, purpose or passion? It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the drama of classes, relationships, family, and work. Our lives are filled with distractions that take us away from living a life with Christ. We try to fill the emptiness inside us with mindless TV, meaningless chatter, stimulants, alcohol, too many activities or other irrelevant stuff. We run away from life and from God.
Lent is a great time to “repent” — to return to God and re-focus our lives to be more in line with Jesus. It’s a 40-day trial run in changing your lifestyle and letting God change your heart. You might try one of these practices for Lent:
FASTING: Some people have been known to go without food for days. But that’s not the only way to fast. You can fast by cutting out some of the things in your life that distract you from God. Some Christians use the whole 40 days to fast from candy, tv, soft drinks, cigarettes or meat as a way to purify their bodies and lives. You might skip one meal a day and use that time to pray instead. Or you can give up some activity like worry or reality tv to spend time outside enjoying God’s creation. What do you need to let go of, or “fast” from in order to focus on God? What clutters your calendar and life? How can you simplify your life in terms of what you eat, wear or do?
SERVICE: Some Christians take something on for Christ. You can collect food for the needy, volunteer once a week to tutor children, or work for reform and justice in your community. You can commit to helping a different stranger, co-worker or friend every day of Lent. Serving others is one way we serve God.
PRAYER: Christians also use Lent as a time of intentional prayer. You can pray while you walk, create music or art as a prayer to God, or savour a time of quiet listening. All can be ways of becoming more in tune with God.
Christians from many different traditions celebrate Lent. How will you use the time to grow closer to God?
Top Ten List: THINGS YOU CAN TRY FOR THE LENTEN SEASON
10. Try an electronic fast. Give up TV, Guitar Hero, texting, tweeting, e-mail and all things electronic for one day every week. (or every day of Lent!) Use the time to read & pray.
9. Start a prayer rhythm. Say a prayer every time you brush your teeth, hear an ambulance, or check your e-mail. Before you text someone, pray for them.
8. Read one chapter in the Bible each day. (Matthew’s a good book to start with. Psalms, too.)
7. Forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it (maybe even yourself.)
6. Give up soft drinks, fast food, tea or coffee. Give the money you save to help folks in Haiti or others in crisis.
5. Create a daily quiet time. Spend 30 minutes a day in silence and prayer.
4. Cultivate a life of gratitude. Write someone a thank you letter each week and be aware of how many people have helped you along the way.
3. Be kind to someone each day.
2. Pray for others you see as you walk to and from classes or drive to and from work.
1. Volunteer one hour or more each week with a local shelter, tutoring program, nursing home, prison ministry or a Habitat for Humanity project.
Rev. Penny Ford is the pastor of a small UMC church in Carrollton, Alabama.
Adapted from The Upper Room
Purple, like black, is a penitential colour, in contrast to a festive one. It is appropriately used during Lent. The forty days of Lent, including the six Sundays that fall during this season, use this deep, rich colour which has come to represent somberness and solemnity, penitence, and prayer.
Violet or purple was a very cherished and expensive colour in the world Jesus lived. The dye used to make the colour was painstakingly acquired by massaging the neck of a Mediterranean shellfish that secreted a special fluid. It was therefore afforded only by the rich and worn almost exclusively by the royalty.
Jesus, the king of the Jews, wore a purple robe only once. As the soldiers mocked and tormented him, the Scriptures record they placed on him a “purple garment” in order to ridicule him and belittle the claim that he was a monarch.
Therefore, purple is used during this penitential season of Lent as a vivid reminder of the contempt and scorn he endured, and the subsequent sacrifice he made for our eternal salvation. Ecclesiastical purple should remind all Christians of their daily need to humbly give attention to leading a life of repentance.
Adapted from http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=452