Lent – What and Why

The word “Lent” comes from the old English “lencten” which means “spring.”  In the Christian Church, Lent refers to the period of abstinence in preparation for the Feast of Easter.  As this time of fasting falls in the early part of the year, it became confused with the season, and gradually the word Lent was used exclusively to refer to this portion of the liturgical year.

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which falls 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays.  The number 40 is biblically significant, as we also see it in the 40 days of the flood, Moses’ 40-day fast before receiving the Ten Commandments, the Hebrews’ 40 years in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert.  Many congregations observe Ash Wednesday with the Imposition of the Ashes, often using ashes made by burning the palms of the previous Palm/Passion Sunday.  The ashes, along with the spoken words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” are tangible signs of our mortality.  We are reminded that God created Adam by breathing life into dust, that without God we ourselves are nothing more than dust, and that our bodies will return to dust when our earthly lives end.

Lent is a season of self-examination and for reflecting on our own sinfulness, meditating on Christ’s great sacrifice, and opening our hearts to God’s unbounded grace and forgiveness.  It offers a special opportunity to grow in our relationship with God and to deepen our commitment to a way of life, rooted in our baptism.  Lent provides an opportunity to pray more deeply and experience sorrow for things we have done and left undone.  In the early church, it was a time to prepare new converts for baptism, which traditionally occurred during the Easter Vigil, the evening before Easter Sunday.

Many churches omit the use of the joyful word “Alleluia” during Lent.  At BLC, we bury the Alleluia banner on Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday; it is not displayed again until Easter, when we joyfully celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord.  We also refrain from using Alleluia in our Lenten liturgy.  At BLC we usually sing Alleluia, Song of Gladness (ELW 318) as we bury the banner.  The third stanza is especially meaningful at this time:

Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below;

Alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forgo;

For the solemn time is coming when our tears for sin shall flow.

The lectionary for Ash Wednesday is always the same, with Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21 as the Gospel reading.  It is here that Jesus tells us that almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are good things, but must be done in true devotion without drawing attention to one’s self.  These three – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – give shape to the ways the church has traditionally observed the Lenten season.

The liturgical color for Lent is purple, usually a deep, dark shade, reminiscent of night.  It focuses our attention on the fasting and repentance associated with the Lenten season as well as symbolizing the state of our souls outside the light of Christ.  Purple is also the color of royalty, particularly the Roman emperors at the time of Jesus.

Lent culminates with Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday before Easter.  The ancient meaning of the word “passion” is “suffering.”  Worship on this day begins with the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna!”  Jesus’ followers covered his path in palm fronds, following the custom of placing palms in the path of a high-ranking person.  The palm branch signified victory in Greco-Roman times, so the waving palms would have resembled a triumphal procession.  Following this, worship pivots to the story of Jesus’ suffering and death as we continue our journey through Holy Week, The Great Three Days, and finally to the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and his victory over sin and death!