Submitted by Rev. Nevell Owens
As early as the fourth century, Lent has been observed by the Christian Church in the West; it spans 40 weekdays beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on the Saturday before Easter. Originally, Lent marked the preparation of those who were to be baptized. These new converts underwent a period of intense study and prayer to prepare them for baptism at the Easter Vigil. However, because these new converts were to be received into a community of faith, the entire community joined in with them in prayer and study.
Today, churches and individual Christians continue to observe Lent through prayer and preparation in anticipation for the Easter celebration. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during the Lenten season are not counted as a part of the 40 days of preparation. While there are many biblical occurrences where the number 40 is used, the days of Lent are especially connected with the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. According to the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus remained in the wilderness 40 days, fasting and being tempted by the devil.
Just as Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting, Lent has traditionally been observed by the giving up of food, especially meat. Some churches and individual Christians rigidly adhere to a strict observance of not eating anything during the entire 40 day period while others are more lenient in how they observe Lent.
In whatever way one may observe Lent, as noted the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday gets it name from the ancient practice of ashes being placed on the foreheads of worshippers as a sign of humility and sorrowful recognition that sin brings death. Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what it means to be Christian. This somber day of reflection is preceded by Carnival and Mardi Gras. Carnival, which in Latin means the removal of meat, is the three day period before Lent, primarily a period of celebration that ends with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, traditionally a day where a final, fat laden meal is eaten prior to the beginning of Lent.
The Lenten season culminates with Holy Week beginning with Palm (Passion) Sunday and ending with the Saturday before Easter. Included in this week are Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Palm Sunday marks the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as the crowds waved palm leaves proclaiming Jesus to be the messianic king of Israel. Maundy Thursday commemorates Jesus last meal with his apostles before his arrest wherein Jesus instituted several mandates for his followers to observe. Good Friday commemorates Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, crucifixion, death and burial. Saturday of Holy Week is viewed as the time that Jesus rested in the tomb prior to his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
As can be seen the Lenten season has a rich history in Christianity and should be a time when all Christians remember what it means to be a disciplined follower of Jesus, the Christ.