One year when I was serving in the Church Relations Office at California Lutheran University we decided to put together a Lenten devotional that could be emailed in daily installments to students, faculty, staff, and patrons. Most of the feedback was positive. One student, however, wrote us a rather heated letter. He was not only opposed to our Lenten devotional, he was opposed to Lent. “There is nothing in the Bible about Lent,” he wrote. “It is a thing made up by the church. If it is not in the Bible, we should not do it.”
I wrote back what I hope was a gentle letter explaining that the practice of setting aside a time for fasting and preparation before the celebration of Easter was, in fact, one of the earliest practices of the church. I also explained that it was the Church that gathered and assembled the books into the sacred library we call the Bible, but that there was nothing like an official agreement on which books were included and which were excluded until the Council of Rome in 382 CE. So, even though the individual books of the Bible might be older, I explained, the followers of Jesus have been practicing Lent longer than they’ve had a Bible.
Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent. There are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, but the season of Lent is only 40 days. That’s because the six Sundays are not included in the fasting of Lent. They are, though, included in the liturgical observation of the season. We don’t sing the Gloria or the Alleluia during Lent. In some traditions, the Alleluia is symbolically buried in a casket under the altar during this season and is “resurrected” for the celebration of Easter.
We begin our observance of Lent by marking ourselves with ashes. Ashes have been a symbol since ancient times of grief and sorrow. They also serve as a sign of humility, or of repentance. On Ash Wednesday we stand humbly before God and remember that we are both sinful and mortal.
In Genesis, when God is escorting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and into a life of difficulty, God says to them, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19)
Later in Genesis when Abraham is bargaining with God and trying to keep God from destroying Sodom, Abraham says, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (18:27) These are the words we quote as we mark ourselves with ashes.
Job, after his trials and tribulations, finally sees God’s majesty revealed and says, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Jeremiah, when he’s calling the people of Judah to repent and warning them of the destruction that is coming upon them, cries out, O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”
In the book of Daniel, when Daniel is preparing to ask God to intervene and show mercy for his people, he writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”
Ashes continued to be used as a sign of contrition in the early church. Tertullian (c. 160-225) included sackcloth and ashes in the rite of repentance. Around the year 800, those who had committed serious sins were covered in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes before they were allowed to receive Holy Communion at Easter. Sometime around the year 1000, as Lent came to be viewed as a season of penance, the practice of strewing ashes on the head was extended to the entire congregation.
Ashes remind us that because we are mortal, our life, our strength and our help come from God. They open the doorway into Lent, a time when we reflect on the way of Jesus and follow his path and listen to him more closely.
Lent is a time when we renew our practice of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting.
There are a variety of ways to fast. The traditional practice of many has been to give up meat during this time. It has been the practice of some to have two small meals during the day then break the fast after sunset. Some people simply give up something they’re attached to for the 40 days: chocolate, television, podcasts, Facebook. You can fast from anything that’s a daily part of your life. The idea is to set that thing aside and give its space to Christ. For instance, if you’re giving up lunch for the 40 days, then during that lunch hour you can spend time in prayer or meditation.
On Sundays and Feast Days we get a break from fasting. So if you’re giving up red meat for Lent, you can still have a bite of corned beef on the Feast of St. Patrick!
This time of fasting and preparation before Easter may have originated in the preparation for baptism. The Didcache, a Syrian manual of church practice that dates to about the year 100, instructs that both those who are being baptized and those who are baptizing should fast for one or two days before the baptism.
At some point early on baptisms became tied to Easter. Lent, then, became a time to prepare for baptism. The practice of this, though, was far from uniform. In Alexandria, Athanasius required his catechumens to prepare for 40 days, studying for 3 hours each day. In other places, though, the preparation might be as little as a a week.
At the Council of Nicaea in 325, in addition to establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, several important matters of church order and practice were standardized. One of the things that was decided was how the date of Easter should be determined. While they were at it, the bishops also agreed that Lent should be 40 days leading up to Easter.
They didn’t call it Lent, by the way. That’s our English word from the Old English word Lencten, for Spring. The Eastern bishops called it Tessarakosti and the Western bishops called it Quadragesima. Both mean 40 days.
So why 40 days?
Though the Bible as such had not been assembled yet, the bishops at Nicaea were very familiar with the texts that would eventually be included in it. They knew that the number 40 in these sacred texts represented a period of testing, trial, judgment, or probation. In particular they were mindful of Jesus being tested in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry.
The number 40 occurs 146 times in the scriptures. Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in Midian before God called him to lead his people out of slavery. He stayed on Mount Sinai with God and fasted for 40 days. The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.
Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights walking to Mount Horeb. Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh gave them 40 days to repent or be destroyed.
Forty days may seem like a long time to fast, but there was also a practical reason for it. In the days before refrigeration and food preservation, and in times when it wasn’t easy or inexpensive to ship food from other places, this would be the time of year when supplies of some foods, especially grains, vegetables and fruits would start to run low. Fasting for an extended period could help to stretch these supplies until the new crops, especially the early grains, began to produce.
So are you planning to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent? Are you thinking about praying more? Meditating more? Giving more? Reading a devotional? Here’s a suggestion: Practice the discipline of kindness. Be kind. Practice having a generous spirit.
Are you thinking of fasting? It’s a worthwhile discipline and you can learn a lot about yourself by doing it. But if giving up chocolate or television or meat or anything like that seems like it might be too much of a challenge, let me pass along this list of Suggestions for Fasting During Lent from Pope Francis:
Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and have trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
This is a good time to listen.
Listen to the message of the ashes. The message of our mortality doesn’t have to be bad news. God has breathed life into dust and ashes.
Listen to our history. We are part of a very long story that is still unfolding.
Listen to Jesus. He has called us to renew the world…and to be renewed ourselves.