Lent, the forty days in the Christian year which lead up to Easter, is an observance of intrinsic value to the Christian church. The word Lent comes from a variety of Anglo-Saxon & Germanic words meaning spring, a time budding with new life and hope. But for Christians, Lent is not a celebration of nature, rather, it is a process of prayer and spiritual renewal. The Lenten season emphasizes one’s need to cultivate the interior life through spiritual exercises and disciplines.
The season of Lent gradually developed in the early Christian church. From what historians can tell, one of the earliest pre-Easter traditions was fasting for the 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter morning. It was widely understood that Christ was in the tomb for 40 hours, so a period of fasting and remembering the sacrifice Christ made for us became part of the remembrance. The earliest documentation of this is about the year 200, but it is clear from this reference, that the practice had been going on for quite some time. Over time, in fact during the next generation, the fasting was extended from 40 hours to the whole of Holy Week. With such extended fasting, there is typically one small evening meal per day eaten.
Within the next 170 years, the practice of observing a period of time well beyond Holy Week developed. Local customs varied widely. In Rome, the period of Lent lasted 3 weeks. In northern Africa, it was 6 weeks. In Jerusalem, 8 weeks. By the year 400, the church had pretty much decided on the season of Lent lasting 40 days … but the way of counting those days was quite unusual. Sundays were not counted, since each Sunday was an Easter celebration. So the season of Lent developed into 40 days, not counting Sundays, before Easter. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and Holy Saturday is the last day.
The number 40 is significant. It is a common number in the Bible, especially related to wandering, preparation, or temptation. Christ was in the tomb 40 hours. He was tempted in the wilderness 40 days by Satan. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years. Elijah’s journey to Mt. Horeb took 40 days. And of course, during the great flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights.
But all of this still doesn’t explain the different practices that make up this season of Lent. To trace that back, we have to look at another practice in the early church, that of Baptism. Baptisms in the early church were typically the first thing to happen on Easter Sunday. An Easter Vigil would be held, and just before the sun rose on Easter morning, all those who desired to be baptized that year were baptized in a glorious service. Quickly, Lent became a period of time of instruction for those who desired baptism. These candidates for baptism underwent a period of preparation, which included instruction, sacrifice, austerity, and often, daily exorcism. They learned about the Christian faith, and they began to embrace the faith. After a few years, all Christians joined them in a period of time of instruction, sacrifice, austerity, and additional devotion, finding Lent to be a perfect time for recalling their baptism and the meaning of it.
As this practice of observing a period of 40 days of reflection, devotion, and instruction took hold, a number of practices gradually emerged. Ashes were placed on the foreheads of Christians as a reminder that we were sinful and that the result of sin is our death. We will all eventually die. We are not hopeless or fatalistic because at the same time, Christ is the way to life.
Statues, pictures, and crosses were veiled in churches. Not because they were trying to be hidden, but rather to draw attention to them and to remind Christians that sin infects all.
“Alleluias” were prohibited in the liturgy and in hymns. The “Gloria in Excelsius” (“Glory to God in the Highest”) was eliminated from the liturgy during Lent. Bells were not rung. The liturgical colour violet was used. By the 6th century, the practice of “giving up something for Lent” began, but it was much different than what we experience now. Then, a person chose to give up something good for Lent, not some destructive habit. A public announcement was made so that others could monitor the progress. This sacrifice was seen as a spiritual discipline, focused on learning to rely more on Christ and was part of the devotional life. It was also very early in the history of the church that mid-week services during Lent were begun as a time for further devotion and instruction.
More than anything, Lent has been understood as a time for instruction in the Christian faith. When we interrupt the routines of our worship life together, we open ourselves up to new understandings. We do change some things in worship during Lent, but it is not to make ourselves more acceptable to God or to somehow copy Christ’s sacrifice. We do it as a reminder and to jog ourselves into thinking about the significance of our faith, so that we might learn.
Lent is not about a time of humourless devotion. We don’t have to go about with sour faces and eyes cast down, eating rarely, avoiding meat, or other such practices. To do that would indeed be practising our piety before others, in order to be seen by them. Rather, Lent is a time to change some things in our lives so that we are open to the work of the Holy Spirit. We may gather for the Eucharist on Wednesday evenings. We will learn more about the Bible. We will worship God and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit for instruction and to strengthen our faith in a Christ who died for us. His death means that the ashes we wear on our foreheads are wiped away by a risen Christ who promises everlasting life.