A History of Lent & Why It Still Matters

Yesterday was Mardi Gras, for those of you that are not in the know.  Fat Tuesday.  Which means today is Ash Wednesday.  For some, this is a given.  But I grew up in a world where the liturgical calendar did not play into church life.  I still go to a church like that.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t see the point in some of these traditions.

Maybe you were like me, the first time my college friends walked around with ash on their foreheads.  What is Lent?  Why should I care?

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian May [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian May [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Brief History of Lent

Lent, or Lenten, actually simply means “spring” in the original Anglo-Saxon from which the term began.  It is also one of the oldest traditions in the Church.  It began shortly after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the same council that established that Jesus was, indeed, co-equal with God.  This council also separated out the holiday of Easter and also established the first concept of a 40 day fast prior to Easter.  Though not many details exist as to the purpose of the fast, or whether it was meant for everyone, soon the entire Church was observing the fast as a part of their annual calendar.

There was also an absence of any guidelines.  This meant Eastern Christians only observed it on weekdays whereas the Western Christians observed on Saturdays but also had one week less of Lent.  Soon, Lent was moved from starting on a Sunday to a Wednesday, hence the observance of Ash Wednesday.  After the 7th century, Gregory the Great, a leading authority in the church, moved it and also began marking the foreheads of repentant Christians with the ash cross as a sign of their repentance.

By the Providence Lithograph Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By the Providence Lithograph Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So What?

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  Matthew 4:1-2 NIV

Have you ever been hungry?  Days-without-food-ravenous hungry?  Where your stomach feels like a sinking pit of disgruntled pain.  Spiritually, I think we have all been there.  So desperate for something to fill us that we don’t really care what it is.  And so, we gladly take whatever can stop the emptiness, even if it doesn’t satisfy.  And yet, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into just such a circumstance to be tested.  To show that the Son of God could indeed be the perfect and spotless Lamb.  That He could fulfill His mission on earth.  And it made Him hungry, empty.

I am so guilty of satisfying the hunger with whatever junk is lying around.  Trash and garbage pile up until my own soul reeks.  But, Jesus didn’t do this.  He filled His hunger with the word, and the word, a flashing sword, cut the enemy down to size.

We still need Lent in the church today.  This is about so much more than what you eat or don’t, what you do, what services you attend.  Look past all of that and it comes down to repentance.  Cleansing.  Sweeping clean all the junk that has accumulated in the corners of our souls until it looks like a hoarder lives there.

Forty days of preparation.  Of tilling the hardened soil of our hearts and planting His word over and over and over until it takes root.  Maybe this is why Lent actually means Spring.  Because it is meant to be a time when we can see His word start to bud.  See the dead come to life.

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants.  Isaiah 44: 3-4 NIV

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I don’t mean a religious, going-through-the-motions act to attempt to please God.  If that’s all it is, go on and gorge yourself.  I mean a real, deep uncovering of the hidden places.  A laying bare and uncovering the dark so that we can shine as bright as the One we were meant to reflect.  A dirty mirror casts no light.

So, join me.  Join me in this time of preparation and repentance.  I am not necessarily giving up something and grasping onto the One thing I need.  Time with Jesus, deep, personal, and real.  Are you ready?

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