Lent - The Journey to the Mystery of Easter
What is Lent?
Lent comes from the Angle Saxon word Lencten meaning the "lengthening" of days, that is, Spring. Lent is a period of forty days set aside in the Church Calendar to prepare for the great festival of Easter. We prepare ourselves by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Lent has been called the spring time of the soul for it is in spring that we come out of the darkness of winter and come to new life. In Lent we hope to journey from the darkness of sin and spiritual death to the new life in our resurrected Lord. It is spring that we traditionally turn up the earth and plant new seeds. We search out for the dead wood and prune it away. During Lent we dig up our lives by self-examination. With God's grace we plant new seeds that will help us to grow into the people that God would have us be. In Lent we learn to cut away or uproot those things in our lives which entangle and choke our spiritual growth.
The forty days of Lent are patterned on Jesus' retreat into the desert to fast, pray and where he faced temptations (see Matthew 4:1-11). Following Christ's example, we can use the Lenten season as a spiritual retreat into the "desert" as well. Not a literal desert of course, but a spiritual desert, a spiritual retreat where in fasting and prayer we can seek God. Lent is the time where we are called to struggle with our temptations, egos and distractions. In Lent, we are called to take the time to step out of the world, as Jesus did, to spend time with God in silence and in prayer to be renewed as the people of the risen and living Christ.
The Origins of Lent
Lent began as a period of prayer and fasting in the early Church for those preparing for baptism at Easter. By the late fourth century, this period of prayer and fasting was extended to the whole Church as a way of helping Christians to prepare for Easter. In the early Church, Lent was also the time that lapsed Christians would return to the Church. Lent, then as now, is an annual time to renew our baptismal promises and re-commit ourselves to the new life in Christ.
Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday. The word shrove is an Old English word meaning the absolution (the forgiveness) of sins given during a confession with a priest. Interestingly, it is also an early English word referring to a physician's written prescription to heal the sick. In this way confession, absolution and a priest's counsel are seen as a means to heal the soul of its infirmities, restore the spiritual health of the penitent and heal the division between the sinner, the Church and God. It was and still is the Church's custom to go to confession on Shrove Tuesday as a way to begin the season of Lent.
It is ancient Christian custom to fast from animal products (meat, dairy, eggs etc.) during Lent. On the day before the beginning of Lent, a feast was held to use up the meat and dairy in the pantry and to have a little indulgence before the days of Lenten abstinence. This is the origin of pancake suppers in our parishes. Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday as even animal lard was forbidden during Lent. In many Spanish and French speaking countries the celebrations preceding Lent are called Carnival, a Latin word meaning " farewell to meat".
"We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes, an ancient sign, speaking of the frailty and uncertainty of human life, and marking the penitence of the community as a whole." (Book of Alternative Services pg. 282)
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday as we confess our sins and are marked with ashes on our foreheads. In ancient Mediterranean cultures, putting ash or dust on one's head was a sign of mourning. The ash on our foreheads symbolizes our mourning for our sins. We get the ash from burning the palm leaves from the previous year's Palm Sunday's celebration. The palms, which symbolized joy on Palm Sunday, have been transformed into the ash of sorrow for our sins. As the priest puts the ash on the penitents' forehead, the words "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return" are addressed to each person. This powerfully reminds us of our mortality, our brief life here on earth, and our need to get our lives right with God and our neighbour. That opportunity is now. The dust of the ash from which God created us also poignantly reminds us that without God in our lives we cannot fully be alive. For what truly makes us alive, and not just existing, is the life-giving presence of the Holy Trinity dwelling within us.
The Disciplines of Lent
"I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God." (Book of Alternative Services pg. 282)
Self Examination - We can use Lent as an annual way to clean our spiritual house and set things right with God and our neighbours by asking ourselves some honest questions. Do I live the way God wants me to? Do I live my life according to the promises I made to God in my baptism? Let us ask ourselves once again the baptismal questions in the Book of Alternative Services on pages 154-155 and 158-159.
Penitence - If we're honest about our answers to these baptismal questions, we realize how far we fall short of the life we've been called to live. Penitence comes from the Latin word to regret. It is the feeling of sorrow for committing a sin against God or to another. In the Christian sense of the word, this feeling of sorrow is incomplete in itself, but rather is the motivation to repentance. Repentance is the action we take to correct the wrongdoing or sin. It is the commitment to turn away from sin and back to God and to live according to God's will. The Greek New Testament word for repentance is metanoia . Metanoia refers to a complete radical transformation of one's life back into the hands of God. Penitence, the sorrow for sin, prompts us to be honest to God and to admit our brokenness to Him in confession.
Confession, Absolution and the Anglican Tradition - Confessing one's sins and moving on to the new life in God is integral to growth in our life in Christ as individuals and as a community. In the Christian faith, our individual sins are not a private matter, "just between God and me." This is because each Christian is part of the one Body of Christ. "…so all of us, in union with Christ, form one body, and as part of it we belong to each other" (Romans 12:5). If one person has turned away from God in sin, the whole community is affected. "If one part [of the Body of Christ] is hurt, all parts are hurt with it."(1 Corinthians 12:26). With this in mind, one form of confession in the Anglican Tradition is called the General Confession where the whole congregation together confesses their sins as one broken humanity seeking God's forgiveness and the healing of absolution by the priest or bishop. Christ, wishing for his apostles to continue his ministry of healing and reconciliation, granted his Church the ministry to forgive sins in his name as he said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain they are retained." (John 20:22)
The other form of confession, which the Anglican Tradition has always had, is called auricular confession or sacramental confession between a priest and penitent. Although not a requirement in the Anglican Church, making one's confession with a priest (now called The Reconciliation of a Penitent, see BAS pg.166-172) is available and open for all at any time of the year. Making one's confession is not to be restricted to deathbed scenarios. There is an old Anglican saying about making one's confession with a priest. All may. None must. Some should. All may take advantage of this great sacrament of the Church if they so desire at any time. None must make confession in this manner, as there is no Church law to do so. As well, the absolution of the priest given after the General Confession is equally as valid. Some should seek a priest for confession and absolution if one's sins are grave or are unbearable to the conscious and preventing full life within the community of the Church. After the penitent makes his or her confession, the priest will often give a word of counsel and then grant absolution. It is also an ancient custom for the priest to give the penitent a form of penance. A penance usually consists of some form of prayer or other spiritual exercises. Penance is commonly misunderstood as a punishment for the sins just confessed. This couldn't be farther from the truth as those sins no longer exist and the former sinner is now reconciled with both God and the community of the faithful. Rather, penance is an act of thanksgiving for God's love and mercy as experienced in absolution. It can also be a way to help the penitent to stay on the right path in the days ahead.
Prayer - We have a relationship with our Triune God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Every relationship is nurtured, enriched and kept alive by communicating. Without it, that relationship can wither away until almost nothing is seemingly there. Prayer is the communication and dialogue between us and God and it is one of the means we keep our relationship with God healthy and vibrant. Lent is the time to enrich our time and frequency of prayer no matter how long or short it may be. Use the Lenten season to explore new ways of prayer if old methods seem fruitless. Take advantages of the various Lenten devotions offered. Arrive earlier at church to be more prayerfully attentive to the Word of God and better prepared to receive Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Take the time this Lent to "cultivate silence" as St. Benedict said. Remember prayer is a dialogue, a two-way conversation. We can't hear God's voice if we are distracted or doing all the talking. See Jesus' instructions on prayer Matthew 6:5-13.
Fasting - Fasting, or abstaining from a food, is a traditional Lenten practice and is modeled on Jesus' fasting in the desert for forty days and nights. It is the Church's custom to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and any day throughout Lent. Fasting on Fridays in Lent (as well as throughout the year) is an ancient custom in remembrance of the crucifixion on the first Good Friday. We fast, first of all, as a spiritual sacrifice in remembrance and thanksgiving to Christ who sacrificed himself on the cross. Fasting is also a way to discipline ourselves from our need to immediately gratify our every need and desire. Fasting helps us in a little way to experience the hunger of the poor and, hopefully, will prompt us to compassion and generosity on our part to relieve their hunger in tangible ways (eg. giving money to world relief or donating to a local food bank). Following a practice of abstinence is closely linked to fasting. "What are you giving up for lent this year?" is a common question during Lent. People often give up a common treat or luxury that they have daily, like meat, coffee or chocolate. By doing these simple acts of abstinence and fasting, we can be reminded daily that we are on our Lenten journey to Easter. See Jesus' instructions on fasting Matthew 6:16-18.
Almsgiving - Throughout Lent we are especially called to give our time, money and resources to those in need. God calls us to do this all the time, but Lent is our time to be reminded of that fact. Lenten coin cards or boxes are one way children are taught to give up a little of their allowances to help those in need. Lent is not only a time to give money to the poor. It is also a time we can discover new ways to give our time and talents to help out in the church or our neighbours in need. Use the time in Lent to find out where God might be calling you to give of yourself to others. See Jesus guidance on almsgiving in Matthew 6:1-4.
Meditating on the Word of God - It is not how much of the Bible we read daily or weekly, but it is how we read scripture that is important. A translation of the Bible that we understand and suits our needs is an important start. Reading scripture is more than an intellectual exercise. A fruitful reading of the Bible needs to be done in a prayerful manner. Start with a brief period of silence and ask God to help us understand the reading. We can personalize what we are reading. For example, if we are reading the Gospels, we can imagine ourselves in the crowd that Jesus is talking to. Is he speaking to an issue that we may be dealing with? When we read the Psalms, we can make the psalm writer's words our own voice as we praise, question, or thank or adore God. There are many tools to helping us make the Bible understandable and relevant. Carefully listening to the sermon and the Sunday liturgy is great beginning! Sunday bulletins, Forward Day by Day, and books of modern biblical scholarship are other ways we can " hear …read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.." the Word of God.
You may observe certain changes around the church during Lent. During Lent, flowers and colourful banners are removed. We do not sing alleluia in hymns or at the Gospel acclamation. The Gloria ("Glory be to God on high…") at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist is omitted and replaced with the Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy), the Trisagion (The Thrice Holy God) or another canticle asking for God's mercy. Weddings are not celebrated during Lent. In some parishes, it is the custom to cover with veils all icons, crosses, statues or other elements of colour within the church building throughout the whole season of Lent. All of these customs denotes a sense of solemnity appropriate to the penitential season of Lent. The somber simplicity of our churches' interiors help us mark the Church's sense of mourning for its sins.
Purple is the colour for the Lenten season. Purple is the colour traditionally associated with royalty. Purple, the rarest and most expensive of dyes, was only worn by the Imperial Caesars of Rome and later the monarchs of Europe. The purple in Lent reminds us of Christ the King whose crown was not made of gold, but a bough of thorns and whose throne was not a symbol of earthly power, but the cross from where he reigned in love.
The Spirit of Lent
All of our fasting, self-examination and penance is not God's way of making us miserable for forty days of the year. Nor are the extra things we do or give up in Lent some sort of spiritual marathon for us to test ourselves to see how much we can endure. That would be missing the point. Lent is a means to an end. Lent continually points us towards the cross of Jesus and beyond to his resurrection. Lent prepares us to proclaim with greater joy and conviction in the hope that Christ has conquered death. Lent yearly reminds us that we are people of hope. We are an Easter people who know that darkness and death no longer have any power over us. Lent instructs us that if we pray with Christ in the desert and walk the way of his cross we know that we will also experience the power of his resurrection. We journey through Lent to arrive at an empty tomb and there we proclaim with faith and joy "Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!"
Article by Dean Rose.
Permission is granted to use and replicate this or parts of this article with the following ascription;
From an article by Dean Rose, St. Peter’s Church, Oshawa, Diocese of Toronto.