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What is Lent all about?


Last updated 1/31/2008 at Noon

Lent is derived from the Middle English word “lente” which means “springtime.” Lent is the forty day period of repentance and renewal preceding Easter. Why did the Church choose a forty-day period? Because that is the period of time Jesus spent in the desert fasting, praying and resisting temptation. Luke 4:1 “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry”. It was also the period of time Moses fasted and prayed on the mountain before he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:28). Other important 40-day events include Noah (Genesis 7:4), Elijah (1 Kings 19:18), David and Goliath (Isaiah 17:16), and Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3).

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is February 6th this year, and ends with Easter Eve, March 22. Holy Week (the week before Easter) commemorates Christ’s last week of life on earth. It’s the final and most important part of Lent. Lent does not include the Sunday’s between Ash Wednesday and Easter, although the themes of Lent are incorporated into the Sunday Scripture readings and liturgies. Lent is a special time for meditation, prayer, penitential practices, increased understanding of Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection, renewal of baptismal vows and recommitment to the Christian Life.

The Lenten period and its emphasis on penitential practices evolved slowly over the centuries. In the early Church, baptism and penance were key Lenten themes. During Lent, candidates prepared for Easter baptism and people did public penance for serious sins. In later years, the emphasis gradually shifted to private penance. Lent became a time of forgiveness and reconciliation for those who acknowledged their sinfulness. During the Middle Ages strict 40-day fasts (abstinence from meat and other foods), not attending festivities, etc., were obligatory for Christian. Gradually these practices became less rigid. Today the emphasis has shifted from long periods of fasting to prayer, meditation and reflection on the meaning of Easter. Lent remains important as a time of preparation for and renewal of baptism.

Penitential practices encourage inner change. Traditional Lenten practices include: Fasting - a way to cleanse body and mind. It imposes self-discipline and encourages meditation and reflection. Some people participate in partial fasts or abstinence from certain foods in order to achieve the same purpose. Special commitments - often this includes foregoing some secular activities during Lent in order to make time for reading, studying, meditating or participating in church or charitable activities. Good deeds and almsgiving - this often accompanies fasting, where the money saved by not eating is given to charity. In addition, visits to the hospital or nursing home or housebound people are common acts of mercy. Prayer and reflection - Prayer means speaking with God in spiritual communion. Reflection means examining your life seriously and thoughtfully. Lenten prayer generally involves withdrawing from the busy world and praying and reflecting quietly. It does, however, also include gathering for worship frequently and reverently. Studying Scripture - Lent is the time when people are encouraged to spend extra time daily in reading and studying the Bible, especially the Gospels. Participation in church worship services and studies - This generally includes not only making a special effort to attend church each Sunday during Lent, but to also participate in Lenten programs and studies at church.

The color for Lent has always been purple or violet which is the ancient color for royalty as well as for penitence. In England there are two distinct centers of liturgical expression, Canterbury and York. Both have Archbishops and both are widely respected. In Canterbury, the liturgical color for Lent is Purple. In York, however, the “Sarum rite” has traditionally used sackcloth or other “earthy colors” during Lent to emphasize humility and repentance.


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