On the tails of the feasting of Fat Tuesday comes Ash Wednesday and, therefore, the beginning of Lent. While many may be familiar with the name, there are certainly more than a few people out there who have no idea what the name means. As a prelude to our upcoming issue on Easter, I thought it might be helpful to offer a brief history of Lent as a point of meditation for those who already know why we observe Lent, and as a basic overview of this important period in the liturgical year for those who are less familiar with the tradition.
Lent is the season of fasting that occurs in the 40-day period before Easter. Those forty days are counted backwards from Easter, without counting Sundays. (So, in all, there are technically 46 days in Lent). It is observed as a time to reflect on one’s sins, and to also observe the time when Christ was undergoing the temptations prior to the crucifixion. Christ’s temptation is recounted in Mattew 4:1-11, which I will reproduce for you here:
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. THe tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Song of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angles concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”
Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”
Then the devil left him , and angels came and attended him.
This passage should help you glean at least a few basic meanings for Lent and why it’s observed. The fasting element is particularly important–(most) Christians follow Jesus’ example in this passage and also take part in the forty days of fasting. However, fasting is usually not to the scale indicated by this passage; most often, those observing Lent will give up a particular bad habit or food (say, abstaining from Facebook, or avoiding meat or sweets) for 40 days. As a supplement to fasting, many people also spend more time in prayer, or augment their tithes during this period. The idea is that hunger and the daily resistance to temptation helps us to reflect on our relationship with God and his own encounters with temptation during his time on earth. It also readies us for the celebration of Easter by helping us to more fully understand the resurrection’s impact on our own faith and interaction with sin and an imperfect world.
Lent is a religious observance that is not necessarily observed by all Christians. In addition to counting for those who may choose to not observe Lenten fasting or abstention within a tradition that does observe Lent, there are a few denominations that do not observe the Lenten period of the liturgical year. However, observing Lent is a close to universal tradition for all Christians despite variations in observance among particular denominations.
As we head into Ash Wednesday, I hope the passage from Matthew 4 was a helpful reminder to you as you approach your Lenten meditations. I know for me it was nice to have a refresher on the meaning of Lent, and I hope that whatever I have offered here will offer guidance and “food for thought” as we embark on the final 40 days before Easter.