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What does it mean . . .?

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Copyright: We are grateful to the BBC for the use of material from their religion and ethics website

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/holydays/

 

Lent picture of Jesus on crossLent

What does Lent mean to you? No biscuits? Giving up chocolate? Resisting cream cakes for a few weeks?

Why give something up? Why do without? What is it for? What has it got to do with Lent anyway?

The word itself comes from an Anglo-Saxon word: 'lencten', meaning 'spring'. In Saxon times, the month of March was called 'Lencten-tid' (spring-tide) as it was the month when spring, lengthening days, and new growth really made themselves noticed. March also forms the bulk of the period leading up to Easter, so the name for the season became associated with the religious season.

Easter is, of course, the high point of the Christian year. A time to celebrate the victory of the Lord Jesus over sin and death, demonstrated by his resurrection.

As the church became established it was common for converts to be baptised at Easter, so that physical act of baptism was an even stronger symbol of a spiritual truth:

"Or don't you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection." (Romans chapter 6 verses 3-5 NIV)

The period leading up to baptism was a period of repentance and instruction. A time when those who had formerly worshipped pagan gods could make a very definite break with the past. The final stage was a fast of two or three days (a bit more than giving up chocolate!).

So how did Lent get to be set at 40 days?

'Forty' is a significant time-span in the Bible - whether 40 days or 40 months - Moses was forty years as a shepherd before he saw the burning bush; he was 40 days on the mountain when he received the Ten Commandments; the Israelites wandered the desert for forty years before being allowed into the Promised Land. Jesus himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness immediately after his baptism.

From about 325 AD, it began to be common for people to fast for forty days, following the model of Jesus. Fasting then was rigidly observed, and meant only one meal a day, with meat and fish totally forbidden. The forty days were regarded as being continuous, but because Sundays could never be fast days, the forty days had to be extended a further four days, so the start of Lent came to be a Wednesday - Ash Wednesday.

Why couldn't Sundays be a fast day? Because Sunday is the Lord's day - a weekly reminder of his resurrection during which the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, was celebrated - and he said "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?"
(Mark 2:19, NIV)

Fasting was not done for its own sake. It's purpose was (and is) two-fold - as a penitential discipline, and to weaken dependence on physical things in order to strengthen spiritual life. Jesus took it for granted that his followers would fast at times: 

"When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew chapter 6 verses 16-18, NIV)

Fasting is not the only thing associated with the period of Lent. Study and prayer are also important, and many churches run special courses at this time.

Another important discipline is almsgiving. The word 'alms' comes from the Greek word for mercy. From the very earliest times, Christians recognised that the right response to the Lord's own self-giving was generous giving on our part.

But just as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us-- see that you also excel in this grace of giving ... For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians chapter 8 verses 7 and 9)

In fact, the 'collection' taken during church services is just shorthand for 'the collection of alms'.

Additional material

Lent
Lent is the period of forty days which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

For many Christians, Lent is traditionally a period of fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter. However, some churches do not observe Lent significantly.

A time of prayer and penance
The Christian churches that observe Lent today use it as a time for prayer and penance.

Few people nowadays fast for the whole of Lent, although some do still fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and many believers give up certain foods or alcohol as a form of self-discipline.

Many Christians use the time for religious reflection and contemplation.

Why 40 Days?
40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture:

In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain.

The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God.

Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai.

Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.

Most Christians regard Jesus' time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.

Why is it called Lent?
Lent is an old English word meaning to lengthen. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer.

The colour purple
Purple is the symbolic colour used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals.

Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty.

East and West
Both the eastern and western churches observe Lent but they count the 40 days differently.

The western church excludes Sundays (which is celebrated as the day of Christ’s resurrection) whereas the eastern church includes them.

The churches also start Lent on different days.

Western churches start Lent on the 7th Wednesday before Easter Day (called Ash Wednesday).

Eastern churches start Lent on the Monday of the 7th week before Easter and end it on the Friday 9 days before Easter. Eastern churches call this period the 'Great Lent'.

Summary

Lent is often seen as a time when people 'give things up.' This comes from the practice of fasting and careful preparation for baptism at Easter which once took place. It is associated with the period of 40 days which Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing himself for his ministry.

We no longer endure fast of several days to help us in our spiritual journey, but it is no less important for us to be spiritually focussed and obedient to God. It is only as we really determine to cut out the background noise and listen to God's voice that we can begin to turn our hearts and minds in the right direction and find true fulfilment in living.

So use this Lent as a time to get yourself spiritually fit, you know you'll feel better for it!

Lent is used in the church as a 40 day time of prayer and repentance in preparation for Easter. It is a good time for us to have some religious reflection and contemplation.

Why 40 Days? In counting the 40 days of Lent the western church excludes Sundays (which is celebrated as the day of Christ’s resurrection) whereas the eastern church includes them. 40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture: 
In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain. 
The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God. 
Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. 
Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry. Most Christians regard Jesus' time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.

Why is it called Lent? Lent is an old English word meaning to lengthen. Lent is observed in spring, when the days begin to get longer. The colour purple Purple is the symbolic colour used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals. Purple is used for two reasons: firstly because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the colour associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty.