Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent Basics

The word “Lent” comes from the Old Anglo-Saxon word, lencton, meaning lengthening, as in the time of the year when the days get longer. Because it always occurs (in the northern hemisphere) at this lengthening time of the year, Lent basically means “Spring.” As with many elements of our Church Year and liturgy, traditions around Lent developed over time.

We know that in the Apostles’ time, people did not actually prepare for Baptism, see the compelling example in Acts 8. But a century or two later, people typically received Baptism at Easter time, and there was a period of preparation imposed. At first, days and then weeks before Easter were spent in preparation. 

In the 4th Century, the Lenten period was regularized to 40 days, beginning on Ash Wednesday and, excluding Sundays, up to the Vigil of Easter, the traditional time for Baptisms.Later all members of the church participated in the Lenten preparation as each year brought a new chance to renew one’s relationship with the Lord.

These days of Lent are tied to the 40 days when Jesus fasted in the desert, but because 40 is such an important number in all Scripture, we can draw a connection to the 40 days of the flood in Genesis as well as the 40 years of the Israelites' wandering in the desert. The number 40 signifies a completion of a task, a reward earned: Jesus’ ministry, the rainbow after the flood, the Promised Land. And, of course, there are 40 weeks in a typical pregnancy.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three traditional disciplines of Lent. As a means of repentance and devotion they are deeply rooted in the Old Testament; Jesus, as an observant Jew, built his ministry around these practices. To “have the mind of Christ” as Paul urges in 1 Corinthians 2:16, we are invited to walk beside Jesus through his life and ministry. But because we are imperfect in this walk, we repeat it year after year.

The color for Lent is purple, a solemn and penitential but also a royal color. There are no flowers in the sanctuary during Lent. In our church, Nativity Episcopal, the fourteen Stations of the Cross are mounted on the side walls. The choir and the altar party process in silence. We neither sing nor say alleluia.  Incidentally, Lent is officially over with the first "alleluia" at the vigil. Scripture readings and hymns reflect the tone of the season. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus is in mounting danger as his ministry intensifies. We are reminded of the very high stakes upon which our salvation is based.

In modern times, some Christians have distanced themselves from what may seem like the harsh and coercive practices of Lent.  We see that Lenten disciplines are inconvenient and burdensome, but perhaps the reward at the end might make it all worthwhile. The Resurrection is Christ’s and ours, too, if we want it.

“Lent is one of those elements of Christian practice that binds the Christian community to one another and to its beginnings.”
Sr Joan Chittister
The Liturgical Year

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