Seven Quick Notes about Lent

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1. Lent is a forty day season of penitence and preparation for the observance of Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday before Easter. Traditionally, the Lord’s Day (Sunday) is always a feast day, hence Sundays are excluded from the forty day period.

2. Lent follows in the forty day fasting tradition of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. (Exodus 34:28; 1 Kings 19:18; Matthew 4:2). In the Bible, forty represents wholeness and the sacred time it takes to accomplish special purposes. For example, rain fell during Noah’s time for forty days; Israel wandered in the desert for forty years; Saul, David, and Solomon had forty-year reigns; Ninevah was given forty days to repent, etc.

3. The practice of a forty day Lenten fast is first mentioned in the Canons of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). In the immediate post-Apostolic era (second century AD), fasting was practiced before Easter for merely two-three days. Lent was therefore not uniformly practiced throughout church history.

4. The word “Lent” comes from Anglo-Saxon word lencten, which means Spring. Shrove Tuesday (known as “Fat Tuesday” in some parts, or “Mardis Gras” in French) comes from the English word shrive, which means to obtain absolution for sins. The tradition of eating pancakes or other rich foods on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is derived from the need to use all of the remaining eggs, butter, and fat before the fasting season begins. Many cultures observe Shrove Tuesday with carnival-like celebrations.

5. In most traditions, the forty day fast is not a strict fast. It only excludes “luxury” foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy. Fish is often allowed, although the reason is not universally agreed upon. It may date back to Judaism’s distinction of seafood from other meat (see also 1 Corinthians 15:39). This has created all sorts of arbitrary meat exceptions for people to eat, including beaver, alligator, and duck. Others believe the Lent diet dates back to the simpler food provisions of ancient people in the Roman Empire, where fish was readily available while meat was not.

6. On Ash Wednesday, the ash from burned palm leaves of the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration are mixed with a binding agent like olive oil. The sign of the cross is then formed on the forehead as the words, “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15) or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) are declared. The use of ashes stems from the ancient practice of adorning oneself with ashes during a season of repentance (Mordecai, Job, Daniel). The ceremony reminds people of their mortality and the urgency of repentance.

7. It was common in the medieval church to observe Lent as contributing merit to salvation. Therefore, the Reformation mostly avoided Lent or purged it, for fear of its abuse. Interest in Lent was renewed in Anglicanism (and later, other Protestant groups) by the 19th century Oxford Movement.

Are you interested in using the season of Lent to draw nearer to God? In Listen to Him: 40 Steps on the Road to Resurrection, J. D. Walt takes readers on a journey where Jesus’ voice becomes the most clear to us in this season. Follow along with the readings and commentary from the Gospel of Luke as you move from the Mount of Transfiguration to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. | Customer review: “JD provides a thought provoking reflection on each passage. I found myself trying to listen to what Jesus was saying in new ways. Thank you for this wonderful resource.” (Gregory H.) Get your copy from our store here.

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Andrew is an editor for Seedbed. He enjoys spending his free time with family and friends, doing design, photography, and gardening. He lives with his family in Tennessee.

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