By REV CANON SEBASTIAN CAMPBELL
There has been an excessive amount of arrogance expressed concerning this holy season of Lent which the greater part of Christianity finds most fulfilling, both spiritually and otherwise. Most of our people are simply not aware of its importance and the possible impact it carries.
Our word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word that means the time of the lengthening days, or simply “Spring”. Lent, as we know it now, extends for 40 days, which parallels the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Sundays in Lent are not counted into the 40 days, seeing that Sundays are never days of fasting for the Christian.
The season begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, Easter eve. The last week before Easter is called Holy Week and is set a part for emphasis. This is the week of the Passion, the time of teaching and death as it pertains to Jesus. The Lenten season actually grew by extension backward from Easter.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent; it follows Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday” or Shrove Tuesday. Ash Wednesday sets an appropriate penitential or preparatory time for Lent. The name Ash Wednesday is derived from the traditional rite of that day in which the priest marks himself and the faithful on the forehead using ashes left over from the palms of the previous Palm Sunday. The use of ashes is evident in both the Old and New Testaments. It is a symbolic reminder of the ongoing need of repentance and humility before God. What is ever so powerful are the words used by the priest regarding our immortality: “Remember man, you are dust and dust you shall return.” The new rite now adds the challenging words, “repent and believe the Gospel”.
The beginning of Lent is first mentioned in Christian writings about 100 AD. It started as a brief period of strict fasting and prayer, observed by all, in preparation for the Paschal Feast, Easter. The custom may have been taken over from Judaism, since it was customary for Jews to fast in preparation for Passover. Somewhere around 313 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine became a convert to Christianity, declared it a legal religion and made Sunday an official day of worship and a holiday. In doing this, however, he created some problems as well. Converts to the newly popular faith increased quickly now that it was safe and acceptable, but many only partly understood it. And now that secrecy was no longer necessary, devotion tended to relax among the faithful. Now it was necessary for extensive teaching and increased discipline, which was to include both candidates for baptism and those already initiated.
Lent in the Western Church (our part of the world) became a six-week period, excluding Saturdays as well as Sundays. In 325 AD, at the Council of Nicaea, the church word for Lent, Quadragesima meaning a 40-day period – first appeared and was understood as a season of six weeks, beginning on what is now the first Sunday in Lent.
Lent is properly observed by undertaking special programmes of study, teaching, prayer and/or renewal. It’s an appropriate time to instil discipline in one’s life. St Paul talks about beating the body in subjection to the spirit and making it know its master. It is appropriately described as a season of prayer and fasting. It’s good to let go of some vices that have such a convincing hold on us, and let go forever. Of course Lent is not the only time we do these things, but it is built into our church system so as to better reinforce the possibility that we do them.
The purpose of Lent is not self-punishment, but preparation for Easter through concentration on fundamental values and priorities.