Lent is the period of time in the Western Christian calendar from Ash Wednesday until Holy or Easter Saturday. Its name comes from a Teutonic word that just meant the spring season. As Easter Day is fixed, as Passover is, by the cycles of the moon, this means that it occurs at any time between March 22nd and April 25th. In the northern hemisphere this means that it occurs in spring. For much of the history of Christianity most Christians lived in the west and in the northern hemisphere, and this time of year would have been a time of leanness naturally, as the previous years supplies would be low and new crops not be ready. Beasts were killed off for meat in autumn and winter and only small amounts of preserved meat would have been available.
So, apart from any religious significance, it made sense to curtail the eating of meat during Lent, which also often corresponded to what farmers call ‘the hungry gap’. It actually lasts for 46 days, rather than the forty days that Christ ( Mark 1 verse 12- 15) spent in the wilderness, the Sundays not being counted as part of Lent, traditionally because it was not considered proper to fast on a Sunday, the day that celebrated Christ’s resurrection.
The number 40 has special significance for the Jews – 40 years in the wilderness, and Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai in the presence of God. Also in the early church there was a forty hour fast in the period leading up to Easter morning. People were usually baptised on Easter Eve and it was because of this that the period of fasting was extended, first to 6 days and then to 6 weeks, as candidates prepared for baptism. In 4th century Jerusalem for instance classes were held for several hours a day during this period. This occurred after the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire, and so there was a great influx of people wanting to be baptized and the church needed to be sure that they received proper teaching about this first.
In the Roman Catholic church communicants may partake of whatever they have given up for Lent after participating in the Easter mass. But it isn’t just about not eating chocolate. There should also be a time of reflection on the faith and in most cases churches hold special services and Bible studies during this time. For many too it is a time to consider their service for God, and so various activities such as evangelism may be undertaken at this time. One church I know has in recent weeks put on an art display around the subject of Easter and what it means to follow Christ. This gave opportunity for people who normally would not readily speak out about their faith to witness to what they believe. Another church gave out picture frames which people used to create a display of prayers specially written for the occasion. A modern mystery play was created, with characters who were around during that first Holy week such as Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdelene. All of these activities resulted in people coming into the church building in order to see and reflect. A third church took the more radical step of ‘giving up church’ for Lent. Not that they stopped worshipping, but they did it instead in shopping centres, sheltered housing projects, market places and so on and accompanied it with social action – from cleaning up graffiti to a car wash free to all. Others take part in a 24 hr total fast and give the money raised to charity. Churches that use liturgical colors will use special alter cloths and vestments etc. during the period. Pictures may be covered too.
So for some it is a really important part of the Christian year. For others it is just a means of loosing a little weight, or a joke. We may think they are wrong, but should not deride people who don’t understand, or indeed feel superior to them. Rather we should consider ways in which the real significance of this special time can be explained. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,
The real aim of Lent is, above all else, to prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ…the better the preparation the more effective the celebration will be. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning men from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God’s will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.
In many countries Shrove Tuesday, the day before this period of semi-fasting begins, is marked by some form of excess – from the frying of pancakes to a full Mardi Gras carnival. Such celebrations have their origins in pagan festivals, though Christianity took them over. They might well stock up, because at various periods the fasting expected would have been quite strict. At some periods in various places all animal products were banned – hence the custom of using up all the eggs, butter and milk to make pancakes. At other times fish was allowed and in some cases fish and fowl – so over time there has been considerable variation. In the west the situation has become very relaxed, some might say too much so, but among more eastern Christians it is still the custom to only serve vegetarian meals at this time. But whatever the restrictions were or are they serve to mark it as a special time.
There are those of course who can cite scripture to back up the fact that they are eating steak during Lent – I Tim 4 verse 1 -5 , which says that those who would depart from the faith would tell people to abstain from meat which God has created. There are even those who claim that it had its origins in paganism, though I have been unable to find any attempt to substantiate such claims. It is however true that the period was not instituted by Christ and was not practised in the very early years of the church. This does not mean however that it has no value. There are other practices of the modern church that have value, that are not necessarily mentioned in the gospels, though they fit in with Christ’s commandments in Matt 28 v 19 and 20.
Go ye therefore , and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.
The modern church seek to carry out this command in many ways from Alpha courses, prayer breakfasts, holiday clubs and even through sports meetings – friendship evangelism being the most effective form of reaching people for Christ. At the same time it must be concerned with those who already have faith, and who need times when they can specially reflect upon what it means to be a Christian. Lent, properly observed is one of those times. However there will always be debate about what this consists of. One person may feel led to give up meat entirely, another will just restrict himself in another way. Either way they are seeking to mark this special time in the Christian calendar for themselves and for those around them.
Having said that, we are told in Ephesian 6 v 18, that having put on the armour of salvation we should pray always with perseverance. Lent is of no use if for the rest of the year we are not people who have a real relationship with God, and who recognise his gift of Salvation through Christ. It also serves as a marker so that others can recognise that something special is happening. We must take care not to boast about our observance, but at the same time take opportunities to explain why we can’t eat a burger or take a chocolate. This gives others the opportunity to ask questions and for the Spirit to work. Only then can they truly know what Lent can mean.
Thompson, F.C. editor, Thompson chain Reference Bible, King James Version, Indianapolis, Kirkbride Bible Company 1964
The Catholic Encyclopedia, found 29th April 2007 at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm