We belong to the Holy Christian Church that was created by Christ and led by his apostles. Knowing this, we are never to be ignorant of the history of the Church to which we belong. On Wednesday, February 17th we will begin the season of Lent. What do we really know about Lent other than the fact that we have evening worship services for 6 weeks? I hope the following information will increase your appreciation for Lent.
As early as the Third Century, Christians devoted themselves to prepare for the celebration of Easter. In these early generations, two days before Easter were dedicated to the Christian practice of fasting. From the end of the worship service on Good Friday to the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter—equaling the time Jesus spent in the tomb—Christians would fast. Generations that followed increased the period of fasting to six days.
History shows that the length of preparation for Easter increased from one week to three weeks to six weeks, usually excluding Sundays, which were held by Christians as mini Easters. In Jerusalem, as early as the Fourth Century, Christians fasted for forty days in preparation for Easter. The forty days consisted of five days a week for eight weeks. These forty days symbolized the forty days that Moses dwelled on Mount Sinai (Exodus24:18), the forty days that Elijah journeyed to Mount Horeb (1Kings 19:8), and the forty days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Matthew4:2).
In the Seventh Century, the western church arrived at a forty day preparation period for Easter. They were fasting for six weeks at six days a week for a total of 36 days. Beginning in that century, they decided to include the four days that proceeded the first Sunday of preparation. That first day of Lent, then, was known as Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday (Dies Cinerum–”Day of Ashes” in Latin) is the first day of Lent. On this day, Christians focus on their sinfulness and need of Christ’s suffering and death to earn their salvation. Ashes are a sign of sorrow, mourning, and repentance. One custom is to mix the ashes of burned palm fronds with olive oil and apply it to the worshiper’s forehead in the sign of a cross. It is a reminder of our depraved and sinful nature and our total dependence on God for forgiveness and salvation.
During the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther continued to observe this preparation period. Lutheran Churches continue this practice. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent with its conclusion being Holy Saturday; the day before Christ’s resurrection. Because Sundays are mini Easters, each Sunday in Lent is in Lent and not of Lent. For those interested in knowing where the word Lent comes from, and even for those not so interested, the word comes from the Old English word lencten or lengten, which means “to lengthen”. This word was applied to the season of the year when the days were lengthening, the season known as Spring. Lent and Spring therefore bear similar meanings.
Historically, Christians have prepared for the celebration of the Resurrection by fasting. During this period of fasting, Christians would not eat any food during the day until the middle of the afternoon. Even though the body strongly desired food, the Christian was to put this desire aside and focus instead on the things of God, the very Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Matthew4:4). The roots of fasting can be traced back to the writings in the Old Testament. Fasting was a means for God’s people to practice control over the body. Understood in that light, fasting is still valuable for Christians today.
None of this talk of fasting is to lead us as Christians to conclude that we must do these things to please God or to earn or keep our salvation. Quite the contrary, we are encouraged to do these things because we have been set free to do so. The driving force behind all of this preparation in Lent is true repentance. As Christians, we are to abhor our sinful natures and to confess that we are poor, miserable sinners. We are led by the Spirit to truly repent of our sins and of ourselves, meaning that we are to turn away from all that is sinful and genuinely desire to live the lives Christ Jesus has set us free to live. Not because we have to, but because we truly want to as God’s children, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Having repented of our sins, God faithfully forgives us all our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness because of the perfect work of salvation that Jesus has done for us all.
In His Service,