Lent – It’s History and Observance

Last Wednesday we celebrated Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. For those of us raised in the church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church), we never really talked about what Lent is. We just knew we had to be on our best behavior and give up something (the most common being chocolate).

The name word is a German word for Spring (lencten) and the Anglo-Saxon name for March – lenct – because Lent usually occurs in March. This is yet another example of Christianity borrowing from other traditions through the ages to help make worship more familiar to the people.

The word “lent” also means “lengthen” and stands for that time in spring when the days grow longer.

Facts About Lent
The original period of Lent was 40 hours. It was spent fasting to commemorate the suffering of Christ and the 40 hours He spent in the tomb. In the early 3rd century, Lent was lengthened to 6 days. About 800 CE it was changed to 40 days.

Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, 40 days before Easter. Those 40 days correspond with Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness. But Sundays are not included in those 40 days.

Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, is celebrated in many parts of the world with feasting. The French call it “Mardi Gras”. The Germans call it “Fausching”. The feasting comes from the custom of using up household fats prior to the 40 days of Lenten fasting, when no fat is used. Shrove Tuesday takes its name from “shriving” or forgiving sins. The word “carnivale”, also used to indicate the time before Lent means “good-bye to meat”.

During Johann Sebastian Bach’s day, often the organ and choirs were silent during Lent. The thought was that there should be no music or beauty as we reflect on the crucifixion of Jesus.

Today, in liturgical churches, the Lenten season is intentionally set aside for examination, instruction, repentance and prayer. This season is one of preparation for all the people of God for the joyous resurrection of Jesus.

We often hear that Lent is a time of self-denial, a time to give up something. But Jesus isn’t concerned with chocolate and CD’s – he’s concerned with what’s going on in our hearts. Lent is a time to give up those sins in our lives.

    It’s a time to give up the sin of hypocrisy – acting like a Christian on the outside, but being proud and self-centered on the inside.

    Lent is a time to give up the sin of being two-faced – being a Christian on Sundays, but being an unbeliever on Fridays.

    It’s a time to give up the sin of being lethargic – “someday I’ll get my act together spiritually. Right now, though, I’m just too busy focusing on everything except God.”

What is Lent? Lent is that tax collector who stood in the back of the temple, and looked down at the ground, and prayed to God,

“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)

Lent is a time for us to be like that man, to give up our sinful habits, our sinful attitudes, to stand before God and to ask him to forgive us, to wash our sins away, and to empower us to turn away from our sinful past and to live new lives that are dedicated to God.

And after we lay our sins before Christ, Lent is also a time to give up our guilty. When we know that we have been forgiven. We can say:

    “I no longer have to feel guilty about my sins. I no longer have to beat myself up about the way I’ve been living. I have been forgiven. My sins have been washed away by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I can start over. I can work hard to be someone who obeys God, who worships God every day with the way I live my life.”

Lent is an attitude – an attitude of honesty and humility, as we confess our sins to God. But Lent is also an attitude of relief and joy, knowing that our sins have been forgiven, that our Lord slate has been wiped clean as we seek to serve our God with our lives.

A lot of Christians no longer observe the season of Lent; they feel that they don’t need it. They feel that since we are saved by grace, we don’t need to do penitence. But we do!

Lent is an invitation and not an imposition. It is a gift and not a burden if we enter into it with our entire person, Lent can draw us into a deeper experience of the power of the Resurrection. Its focus on prayer, practices of piety, all beckon us to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel”. When understood and entered into it can open us to a new experience of freedom. It is an ever necessary reminder of our own mortality –

Remember you are dust and to dust you will return (Genesis 2:7)

These next seven weeks is a time for us to look deep into our heart, to think about our life and how we’ve been living it. What sin are we going to give up for Lent, and for the rest of our life? Jesus will forgive that sin, wash that sin away at the cross. And Jesus promises to empower us to live a new life that glorifies us.

If people want to temporarily give up certain things for Lent as a sign of love for their Savior, that’s fine. But what Christ is really concerned about is what’s in your heart.

Tonight, we begin that long walk to the cross, where we see just how serious and terrible our sins are. But there we also see how wonderful and deep our Savior’s love is for us. The road doesn’t end there, but at the empty tomb, where Jesus rises from the dead to prove that all of your sins have been forgiven.

May God bless you as you begin your Lenten journey. Amen.
Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH, 9 March 2014

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