The Lenten Season, or the Season of Lent, is a solemn time. It represents the ancient season of preparation for baptism on Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent, and the season lasts 40 days – not counting Sundays. During Lent, Sundays are considered Feast Days, and it is acceptable to rest from the strictness of Lent.
Why does Lent last 40 days? The number “40” has special spiritual significance regarding preparation. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, without food or water, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). We read in 1 Kings 19:8 that Elijah “went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb (another name for Sinai), the mountain of God.” And, we know that before He began His public ministry, Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert (Matthew 4:2). So, in the old days, it was decided that the preparation time of 40 days would be adequate and appropriate.
Though not Biblically based but more of a Christian tradition, some form of Lent has been practiced since the early Christian Church. According to The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, Lent started as the practice to “prepare those who would be baptized at Easter, and before long other members of the Christian community joined those candidates for baptism as an act of solidarity.” During the season of preparation, candidates for Baptism were engaged in study, fasting and prayer.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 5 this year, and is celebrated by fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. Most people who are not familiar with the meaning of Lent usually think it is a season with the sole tradition of giving up something. Many are not aware that there are other Lenten traditions. In fact, many people add something to enhance their lives or in order to get closer to God. The underlying thought is that if one does something for 40 days, the practice will become incorporated into her or his daily life. It is felt that after 40 days, whatever was chosen as the personal focus of Lent will have then become a positive habit. The beginning of the end of Lent falls during Holy Week, with the observances and rituals of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Lent culminates in the joyful celebration of the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.
As an Episcopalian, I have seen many traditions played out during Lent. The first, of course, is the practice of abstaining from something — usually food. This speaks to the practice of fasting during Lent. Some people give up certain foods such as fried foods or red meat, or alcohol, or sweets. Others practice certain fasting rituals, such as not eating before a certain time of day or consuming food only prepared a certain way. Fasting is probably the most widely practiced tradition and works for many people, but when people have chronic health issues or as they age, fasting may not be suitable due to health-related reasons.
When food is not given up, or in some instances in addition to giving up food, many individuals select to abstain from certain dangerous, unhealthy, offensive, or wasteful habits, such as speeding, cursing, “impulse” shopping, gossiping, gambling, just to name a few. If they choose to add something to their lives, they may choose focused and consistent prayer, Bible study, setting aside more time for their families, or volunteerism. Some even take the time to become more organized or clean out their closets in an effort to “clear the clutter” from their lives and, subsequently, make donations to clothes closets and other charitable organizations. There are many ways individuals observe Lent.
In 2013, Presiding Bishop Katharine encouraged us to “be in solidarity with the least of these.” She encouraged us to consider what and how and with whom we eat and to consider the challenges of the poor as they try to feed themselves and their families on food stamps, which is about $4 per person per day. She challenged us to be in solidarity with those who do without. Many Episcopalians accepted the challenge.
There are some liturgical changes, as well. As Episcopalians, we omit both the Gloria in Excelsis and the use of the Alleluia during the liturgy until Easter Sunday. As a result, there is a tradition in some churches where the Alleluia is literally “buried” until Easter. It is a custom where the children of the parish are witnesses to the “burying of the Alleluia,” when a cloth or banner with ALLELUIA on it is actually buried in the courtyard or other appropriate place – to be resurrected on Easter Sunday. It is an honor to be chosen to either place the ALLELUIA in the “grave” or to be the one chosen to resurrect it by digging it up on Easter Sunday.
There are many practices and customs associated with Lent. The fact is that you don’t HAVE to give up or add anything to your routine during Lent — or for the full 40 days. The time is used to prepare for Easter, so I encourage you to make that preparation by slowing down a bit and doing something meaningful which brings you closer to God. Though you may or may not celebrate the Lenten season in a traditional way, the 40 days of Lent are the perfect time to evaluate your relationship with God and consider what you can do to have a better relationship with Him. I encourage you to take this time before Easter and enjoy a sacred and reflective Lenten season.
(1) Exodus 34:28, 1 Kings 19:8, Mathew 4:2, Holy Bible, The New King James Version, 1990 by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc., Nashville, TN
(2) The Episcopal Church newsletter, “Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Lent Message 2014,” by The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, February 28, 2014.
(3) Catholic Education Resource Center, “History of Lent” by Fr. William Saunders, 2002.
(4) The Episcopal Church newsletter, “Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Lent Message 2013: Learn more, give alms, share what you have,” by The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, February 4, 2013.