LENT FAQ’s like: What’s up with ashes on foreheads? & What are you giving up for Lent?
How did Lent start?* Originally Good Friday and Easter Day were observed as a single festival of the crucifixion and resurrection…and from very early times this probably included a fast which was kept before the celebration. If you trace it back as far as you can go, you can find evidence that the Church, as early as AD 200, observed a season of preparation for Easter. In the following few centuries it also evolved into a season of instruction for new Christians to be baptized on Easter. The idea of fasting as a form of preparation for Easter comes from Jesus’ statement that “The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” (Mark 2:20 ESV). How they observed the fast and how many days varied from church to church. The Church of Jerusalem was perhaps the first to observe a “Lenten” fast of forty days as early as the fourth century. How Lent has been observed has morphed throughout church history. Different branches of Christianity have observed Lent differently. However, what has remained mostly consistent is that Lent is a period of time of preparation for Easter that involves repentance (sorrowful reflection of our sinfulness), fasting / self-denial (to remind us we are dependent upon God), and almsgiving (to refocus on care and compassion for others).
What does the word “Lent” mean? The word “lent” derives from the Anglo-Saxon (German) word for “spring”. In describing the season before Easter, it eventually replaced the Latin word “quadragesima” which means “forty days”. This occurred in the AD 1300’s when local languages began to be used more and more in the church instead of Latin.
Why are there so many versions of the liturgical calendar? The fast answer is that it is just a man-made tool to help us focus on different things during different seasons of the year. The important thing to remember is that each section of the liturgical calendar is meant to help us focus on different things: Advent (His coming), Christmas (His birth), Epiphany(His life), Lent (His death), Easter (His resurrection), and Pentecost (His Spirit).
Why is it 40 days? Forty is a common number of days for preparation in Scripture. For example: Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai receiving the covenant (10 commandments) from God. It rained for forty days and nights when Noah was on the ark (although he spent over a year on that thing). Jonah gave the people of Ninevah forty days to repent. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting when he was tempted by Satan. There’s nothing magical about the number forty. It just makes some sense to use it for something preparatory like Lent.
What is Ash Wednesday and what’s on their foreheads? Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Ash Wednesday church services are normally designed to help us focus on the realities of our own mortality, our sinful human state, and our need for Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life. In the Catholic Church (as well as some others) the ashes are made from burning the palm branches that were used in the Palm Sunday services the prior year. The placing of the ashes on the forehead using the thumb is normally done in the sign of the cross. Putting the ashes on the forehead is a reminder that “we came from the dust, and to the dust we will return”. We are God’s creation and we will one day die. The sign of the cross reminds us that eternal life is found only through the cross of Jesus. Many Christians leave the ashes on their foreheads all day as a sign of humility before God.
Why does Lent seem to be primarily a Catholic thing? Simple answer? Because Catholics are the ones who observe Lent the most. Why? That’s not such a simple answer. To answer it fully requires a lesson in church history. However, you can get a taste for the answer in the last question in this article.
What are you “giving up for Lent”? Have you ever had someone ask you that question? Abstinence (giving up something good) and fasting (normally food) is a big part of Lent. Many people who observe Lent do two things. First, they give up something they take pleasure in for the entire season of Lent. Second, they fast certain foods or certain meals on certain days during Lent. We’ll cover this more in a future Lent Experience article. Reducing Lent to just “giving something up” as an act of willpower misses the point. Fasting is a very helpful spiritual discipline. It is definitely included in The Lent Experience, but it’s part of the larger whole.
What’s up with only eating fish on Fridays? It’s partly related to the answer of the previous question. Not eating meat (which fish is not considered) on certain days during Lent is a very “Catholic” thing. What days a person is supposed to abstain from meat during Lent has changed throughout the years.
Why do some people have a problem with Lent? There’s actually a pretty good reason. It is very possible that the purpose of Lent can be dangerously confused. If we fall into the trap of thinking that it is the good or religious things that we do that make us “ok” with God, then we seriously miss the point. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s mercy or love. You don’t earn mercy or love. You just accept it. In other words, no matter how hard we try to be “good” people, that effort falls very short. It is Jesus’ death and resurrection that make a relationship with God possible. You could observe 1,000 Lents and it won’t ever accomplish in your life what the cross of Jesus has. The Church Reformation of the 1600’s led by Martin Luther was all about this topic. This was the big moment in history when we ended up with the Catholic / Protestant church split. The purpose of Lent is not ritual, good works, and earning favor with God. The purpose of Lent is to focus on why the death and resurrection of Jesus is so important. The observation of Lent is a choice, not an obligation.
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*I found lots of good info for this blog post in- The Christian Calendar. L.W. Cowie & John Selwyn Gummer. G&C Merriam Company, Springfield, Mass, 1974.