Lent is but one slice of a much larger calendar or pattern that we refer to as the Christian Year, or Christian Calendar, but it is an important slice. When I was growing up I understood Lent as something only my Roman Catholic friends participated in. Now I realize that the season of Lent actually developed in the early centuries of the Christian church. Originally it was a season of preparation for Baptism, a service that was to coincide with Easter (Incidentally, Easter is a season of 50 days, referred to historically as the Great Fifty Days. These 50 days include the Ascension of Christ and Pentecost; one day is simply insufficient for the celebration of all that Easter signifies).
Why 40 days?
The “40 days” of Lent was associated with the 40 days of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness—a time when Jesus, as the 2nd Adam, confronts evil and wins. If you check the calendar and begin with Ash Wednesday, the season is actually 46 days long—40 “fast” days, plus 6 Sundays (Sunday is celebrated as Resurrection Day, and is never a fast day).
Why fasting? Early on, this season was one of final instruction and intensive preparation for those baptismal candidates who were on their way to initiation into the church. So it was a season of discovering the meaning of baptismal spirituality—what it means to be buried with Christ and resurrected to new life in Christ; what it means to die to self and to live by the Spirit. It gradually developed as a season for the whole church to exercise the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving of alms to help those less fortunate.
Over the centuries Lent became, for some, a season to pay penance for sin to try to earn God’s approval. Then there are others who glibly joke about what they are going to give up for Lent. This may be a reflection of growing up in a tradition that does not grasp the potential richness and opportunity for spiritual formation that is available in following the Christian calendar.
Significance of Lent? I invite you to consider Lent not as a dark and somber season of morbid introspection but rather as a sober season of contemplation and remembrance. Someone referred to Lent as an “ellipsis” … a season to consider the implications of sin’s consequences for humanity and society and to contrast that with the implications of new possibilities in the risen Christ. If you have already been baptized, it is an opportunity to revisit the significance of your baptism and to grasp what it means to live a baptized life. Some see it as a journey with Jesus to the cross and that invites us to consider events in Jesus’ life and the significance of those events.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season but why the application of ashes? In scripture, ashes were used to symbolize death, grief, and mortality. So in engaging in the application of ashes in the shape of a cross we have the opportunity to ponder death. We also have the opportunity to remember this journey with Christ to the cross, and through the cross, to the Resurrection.
In a recent piano lesson, I was suggesting to a student that they would benefit from using a metronome (tick, tick, tick) to help keep a steady beat. Ultimately you want to internalize that pulse so that it becomes your own but sometimes we need something external to help the internalizing process. As I was saying that, I thought of the ritual of Ash Wednesday. Physical engagement in ritual can aid the internalizing of the spiritual. Our bodies are carriers of spiritual reality and physical participation is a means of active rather than passive engagement.
But why do this year after year? Timothy Carson, in referring to the Christian calendar states, “Because it has stood the test of time, it may be sufficiently deep to allow me to swim more deeply in it. Because it is repeated, I have another chance, today, to go where I could not go yesterday.”1
May we, as Wesleyans, swim deeply this Lenten season.