What is Lent?

This Sunday we begin the Season of Lent in the church.  It is a season that is rich in history and tradition.  So that you can better appreciate this important time of faith formation, here’s a quick sketch of Lent’s origins and purpose.

Lent began informally in the earliest days of the church.  It was codified as the forty days before Easter at the Council of Nicea in 325.  The forty days of Lent are to mirror the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism as recorded in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. 

The season begins with Ash Wednesday; an ancient day of confession of sin by means of the imposition of ashes on people’s foreheads to symbolize the transitory nature of life.  “You are dust and to dust you shall return” are the traditional words used during this imposition of ashes.  It sets the tone for a season of confession and penitence.

If you actually count up the days of Lent, you will notice that there aren’t 40 days but 46 days leading up to Easter.  This is because the Sundays of Lent are not counted.  The reasoning here is that while the season of Lent is to be used to introspectively evaluate one’s self with an eye to one’s inadequacy and sin, every Sunday is to be thought of as a “mini-Easter”.

The culmination of this season is Holy Week which begins with Palm Sunday’s remembrance of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and includes: 

  • Maundy Thursday’s remembrance of the last supper (“Maundy” means “commandment” and recalls Jesus’ new commandment that we “Love one another”), 
  • Good Friday’s remembrance of the crucifixion of Christ,
  • Holy Saturday’s vigil at the tomb of Christ,
  • And Easter Sunday’s welcome of the Resurrection.

During Lent people traditionally give things up that inhibit their connection to God.  This is often indulgences of one kind or another (often food related!), but ultimately the season of lent is a time to:

  • Acknowledge our imperfection
  • Admit our need for God 
  • Draw close to Christ and find meaning in his suffering
  • And renew that divine companionship.

Due to Lent’s historical emphasis on sin and penitence, many people view Lent as a heavy, depressing time in the church year.  At First Congregational Church, I try to design liturgies that place a strong, energetic focus on God’s loving companionship with us in the challenges of life along with Christ’s call to serve a hurting world while at the same time honoring the ancient sentiment that grounds this time of year.

The beginning of Lent is based on the date of Easter in any given year.  The date of Easter Sunday shifts year to year because it follows a lunar calendar and falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

During Lent this year, I will be using the “Meditation” portion of the liturgy that follows the opening hymn to highlight and modernize some of the basic facets of Lent so that you can more authentically enter into and take full advantage of this rewarding and challenging season of the church year.

See you in church,

–Rev. Dominic