Dear People of Low’s,
We entered the season of Lent just a few days ago as we marked Ash Wednesday. Lent can be a bit of a jarring time of the church year, as it was just a few weeks ago we celebrated the joy (and, unfortunately, excess) of Christmas. Then Lent hits us with talk of denying ourselves (fasting) and focusing on confessing our sins and prayer. Of course, at the end of the six-week period of Lent and Holy Week, we are once again in a season of joy (and excess) with Easter. Lent isn’t well understood by those outside the church, as attested by a sign outside a Golden Corral Steakhouse that solicited customers with the slogan, “Celebrate Lent” (How is taking advantage of a large food buffet a proper way to “celebrate” Lent?). Lent can seem strange even to Christians. What is behind this season of the church year that is so at odds with our culture? Where did the idea of Lent originate, and how is it connected to Scripture?
The observance of Lent began in Rome sometime in the late 4th century. It had its origins even earlier, in a three-day observance in the early church, and, later, in the three-week period of preparation for Easter baptism. Lent expanded the baptismal preparation period to a 40-day observance of fasting and prayer in a time when most baptisms (there were still a large number of adult baptisms with new people who were formerly pagans coming into Christian faith) were performed during the Easter Vigil, the marking of the night before Easter Sunday. The observance of Lent was further intensified with special prayers and chants for God’s protection with the onset of invasions, droughts, and plagues in Italy in the 6th Century (As much as 25% of the population of the Mediterranean region perished in the 6th century plague)..
Later in the Middle Ages Lenten practices further evolved. The practice of veiling crosses and religious statues became common practice during Lent (we only do this at the close of the Maundy Thursday service). Lent became a time when the Sacrament of Holy Communion was emphasized in an era when many Christians only rarely partook of the elements during the rest of the church year. Fasting practices varied. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, fasting wasn’t practiced on weekends, whereas churches in Western Europe included Saturdays (Sunday wasn’t a fast day).
After the Reformation followers of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers were a bit skeptical of Lenten practices. Luther was concerned about fasting becoming a “mockery” since so many saw it as a means to gain God’s favor and impress others with their holiness. Luther felt fasting was even potentially harmful, especially to pregnant women and young children. For Luther, Lent was best regarded as a time to subdue the body and our own desires in order to focus on prayer and confession of sin. But he didn’t regard it as an obligation.
While Lent isn’t mentioned in the Bible, there is one obvious connection between Scripture and Lent--the story of Jesus’ temptation in the Wilderness. Matthew records that Jesus went without food for forty days and nights. While, as Luther noted, we can’t fast in the way Jesus did, we can certainly take notice of our Lord spending those weeks in prayer and self-denial in preparation for facing Satan’s temptations. There is certainly much that tempts us daily, if not hourly. There is also much that draws us away from prayer and focusing on Scripture. Observing Lent may not be necessary, since it is not commanded by Scripture, but it can draw us closer to our Savior as we remember the great sacrifice he made on our behalf. After all, Jesus did tell his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, NLT)
God loves you and I do too, Pastor John Mark