Today is the first Sunday of Lent. In some traditions it is called Quadragesima, the Latin term for fortieth. Lent commences on Ash Wednesday and extends up to Easter Sunday (40 days, excluding Sundays). It is a time of preparation for Easter in a similar way that Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. However, Lent is characterised more by prayer, self-examination, repentance, fasting and spiritual renewal. In recent centuries, the idea of giving up something for Lent has predominated.
Typically, Evangelical Churches have not been big on Lent, often ignoring it altogether and sometimes even actively opposing it. Lenten fasting has often been seen as a Roman Catholic practice carried out as a form of works-gospel to score points with God. The Baptist Churches in which I grew up certainly celebrated Easter but didn’t observe Lent. I knew very little about it until studying Church History at College and then relating with churches and ministers of other denominations after becoming a Pastor. I’ve come to see its observance as a much richer experience than the popular notion of just giving up chocolate or something for six weeks.
In the early centuries of the Christian Church after the Apostolic Age, converts too Christianity were often baptised on Easter Sunday after undergoing several weeks of instruction and discipline, including fasting and penitence. Any who had been excommunicated but wanted to be restored to the communion of the church did likewise. From about the fourth century, the period became one of general devotional preparation for all.
Over the years, I have participated in Lent in different ways such as focussed daily readings; fasting for Holy Week (the last week of Lent); and once even fasting for the whole of Lent. More recently I have been taken with the idea of adding something during Lent, such as acts of kindness or generosity, rather than it just being about self-denial. That way Lent can become more than just an exercise in more self-improvement but one of blessing others as well. I think a balanced approach to Lent includes both aspects. This year’s readings for the start of Lent point to this.
Psalm 51:2,10,16a,17a (NRSV)
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
For you have no delight in sacrifice.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Isaiah 58:6a,7a (NRSV)
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice.
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.
I’m looking forward to Easter, but there are some important things to do first. Have a fulfilling and meaningful Lent.