Whilst the word Lent is derived from the Middle English word for spring – lencten – the origins of the season lie in the early second century. Melito of Sardis’ Peri Pascha is one such work which suggests that those Christians who lived in the Roman province of Asia and had been taught by the disciples had begun to celebrate Christ’s resurrection not only every Sunday, but also annually with a great feast coinciding with Passover. In preparation for this feast and celebration, the Asiatic church had set aside the time prior to Easter as a season of preparation, prayer, and fasting.
This was later taken up by the church beyond Asia, as the season of Quadragesima (Latin: 40 days) became a focused period of catechesis for baptism candidates before they would wade, naked, at dawn on Easter Day into the water to be baptized by the local bishop.
Nonetheless, even with such a specific reference, Quadragesima maintained its purpose as a season of preparation for all Christians. Whereas the season would later come to focused on the medieval practices of penance, for Christian leaders like Athanasius who wrote to his flock advising them of times to fast and to feast, Lent was a preparatory palate cleansing prior to the feast of Easter:
“The whole creation keeps a feast, my brethren, and everything that has breath praises the Lord, as the Psalmist [says], on account of the destruction of the enemies, and our salvation. And justly indeed; for if there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, what should there not be over the abolition of sin, and the resurrection of the dead? Oh what a feast and how great the gladness in heaven! how must all its hosts joy and exult, as they rejoice and watch in our assemblies, those that are held continually, and especially those at Easter? For they look on sinners while they repent; on those who have turned away their faces, when they become converted; on those who formerly persisted in lusts and excess, but who now humble themselves by fastings and temperance; and, finally, on the enemy who lies weakened, lifeless, bound hand and foot, so that we may mock at him; ‘Where is thy victory, O Death? where is thy sting, O Grave?’ Let us then sing unto the Lord a song of victory.” – Athanasius, ‘Sixth Festal Letter’ in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, (edited by Philip Schaff, online at ccel.org).
Athanasius called his flock, in preparation of celebrating Easter, to repent now as a sign of Christ’s triumph over the grave. The victory wrought that first Easter Day enabled those who are being restored after the likeness to Christ to throw off the works of darkness. Far from penance, the discipline of Lent and the reordering of our desires is work of God’s Spirit announced in the gospel by which our frail, finite hearts are charged with the objective reality of the accomplishment of Christ’s death and resurrection. Lent prepares us to celebrate the resurrection by reminding us that Jesus achievement in trampling down sin and death is no mere external fact, but effective on our own hearts.
Whilst in many ways for the antipodes lencten is a curious quirk of history, the idea of a spring clean which Lent gave rise to is both fitting and entirely personal. Lent calls us not to gorge ourselves on unsatisfactory junk, but to prepare ourselves for the feast through the discipline of our discreet actions, patterns of habit and behaviour, and ultimately virtues as the grace dynamic of the gospel displaces our vices, and reorders our hearts towards God. The call to study, prayer, alms-giving, and fasting is a call to let our hearts hear again the prodigal nature of God’s generosity towards us in Christ. Again and again throughout Lent, the most fruitful formative practices will be the ones which recall us to God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and apply the power of his Holy Spirit as the balm to often ugly, stingy hearts.
Lent itself is a period of forty days, not including Sundays. Forty is not incidental; it recalls the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested by Satan. The humility and obedience Jesus displayed their to be a particular type of Christ would later set his face towards Jerusalem to confront sin, to be betrayed, to be killed, and to rise again. The Sundays are excluded from the Lenten fast as since from the first generation of the Church Sunday has been celebrated as a feast – a mini Easter if you will. This reminds us that whilst Lent has a particular emphasis on abstaining from things, those things themselves are not the problem, rather it is the ‘corruption that is in the world because of disorder desires’ that have set things awry (2 Peter 1.4). With the sure promise that God has acted to renew his broken creation, Sunday breaks our fasting so that we might gladly receive God’s good gifts with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4.4).
There are particular two dangers associated with Lent, both of which first are at risk of losing sight of the gospel which Lent is designed to inhabit us in. Firstly, it is possible to institute into our habit of Christian worship something that Jesus explicitly commanded us not to do: ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (Matthew 6.16-18).
Anyone who undertakes a Lenten fast must remember these words from our Lord on how to fast. It is not to be done for maximum religious effect, as the Gentiles fast. Instead it is to be done in quiet; the focus is on forming our desires, not drawing attention to ourselves. Otherwise the formation does become about our own performance rather than the perfecting work of the Spirit. Additionally a fast should be entered into willingly and joyfully, without compulsion. It cannot be forced on people. The spark that began the Swiss reformation in the 1520’s was the enforcement of not eating sausages during Lent. Ulrich Zwingli saw the hypocrisy and the danger at work when a freedom to fast or not to fast is imposed by others. Zwingli sprang into his pulpit and delivered a sermon entitled ‘Regarding the Choice and the Freedom of Foods’ in which he declared that ‘Christians are free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent’. Lent, he argued, was a human institution, not a command of God in the Bible. Therefore, it must not be imposed on Christians by any church, though there is in principle nothing wrong with observing it. What is necessary is an explicit, Spirit-empowered, grace dynamic founded on the true gospel.
Secondly, it is possible to pour so much energy into the habit forming practices of Lent, that we forget the intended outcome. Lent is a preparation for the celebrating of Christ’s victory over the grave, and the self-denial during Lent is to be accompanied by rejoicing in Easter – not only on the first Sunday, but throughout the full 40 days of the Easter season. Without Easter, Lent reduces the Christian life to just mortification. Conversely, without Lent, Eastertide reduces the Christian life to only vivification. As we await The final consummation, both distinct but correlated elements are required to adequately describe the dynamic of gospel as it brings real change to people.
While there are several significant days which occur within Lent, leading to the Easter Triduum Lent itself begins on Ash Wednesday, which is a moveable feast occuring 46 days before Easter. Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a celebration and reminder of human mortality, and as a sign of mourning and repentance to God. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The liturgy on that day is one that is focused on repentance, and the assurance of forgiveness in Christ. In the liturgy, as an ashen cross is placed on our foreheads, we are exhorted to:
“Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news.”