How do Christians observe Lent?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent in Western Christendom. However in some Eastern churches, Lent actually begins on the Monday prior to Ash Wednesday.
In the Western churches, ashes from burnt palm leaves, usually mixed with oil, are placed on the forehead of worshippers to remind them of their mortality. In biblical times, ashes combined with sackcloth were worn by God’s people to express their repentance of sins before God. However, in some Eastern churches, ashes are not used on Ash Wednesday.
The colour for Lent is purple in the Western churches. In some Eastern churches the colour is red. In both Eastern and Western churches, purple and red are penitential colours.
At first, Lent was 36 days, a tenth, a tithe of our 365 day year. However, at about the end of the seventh century, Lent was extended to 40 days (not counting the Sundays), and has remained the same since then. There is something magical about the number 40. The flood in the days of Noah lasted 40 days. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by the devil.
The word Lent may have Anglo-Saxon origins, meaning to lengthen, as in referring to the longer days in the season of spring. Over the centuries, Christians have developed several traditions to assist them in their preparation for the celebration of Easter Sunday, and the resurrection of Jesus. Here are a few of them:
- Preaching, reading, studying, praying, and focussing on the New Testament Passion Narratives, which highlight the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry; along with his journey to Jerusalem, his arrest, trial, sentence, crucifixion, suffering and death.
- Worship Services that communicate a more reflective, sombre mood by omitting (in some denominations liturgically burying) the singing or saying of hallelujah and alleluia; as well as singing hymns with tunes in the minor key, which are often inspired by and based on the Passion Narratives. In Lutheran tradition, it has been (perhaps more so in previous generations than today) common to listen to J.S. Bach’s Passion of St Matthew and Passion of St John during the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Palm-Passion Sunday, and Good Friday Worship Services are especially designed to engage worshippers in acts of sincere confession and repentance of sin—both personal and collective; remembering with humility our mortality and hence our utter dependence on God; and the desire to journey with Jesus in the way of the cross.
- The practice of giving something up in a sacrificial way for Lent in order to be in solidarity with Christ and the world’s poor. In our part of the world, that might include no television, no movies, or no Internet during Lent. The operative principle for giving something up in a sacrificial way during Lent is that it needs to be sacrificial; i.e. something that you value and takes up much of your time, energy and resources. For example, it is pointless to give up chocolate for Lent if you do not eat chocolate.
- The practice of taking something extra on for Lent. For example, you may wish to spend extra time in prayer, meditation or study. Many churches offer their parishioners special mid-week Lenten Worship Services or Study opportunities or social justice projects that connect us with the world’s poor through benevolent organisations like Canadian Lutheran World Relief <www.clwr.org>.The Lenten season has inspired poets, musicians andartists alike down through the ages. Here is the first of 21 stanzas, (divided up into 7 parts to coincide with the Good Friday Tenebrae Service on the 7 last words of Jesus on the cross) one of my favourites, by the nineteenth century hymn writer, Thomas B. Pollock: “Jesus in thy dying woes, even while thy life-blood flows, craving pardon for thy foes: Hear us holy Jesus.” One of my favourite works of art is Salvador Dali’s 1951 painting, “Christ of St John of the Cross.Whatever you do to observe Lent, may you find meaning and purpose in it to enrich, inspire and deepen you in your faith journey. I invite readers of this post to make a comment and share how you observe Lent. A blessed Lent to you.