This coming Wednesday, March 5, is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Let's take a look at the historical emergence and spiritual significance of the Lenten season.
Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on the day before Easter. The six Sundays of this
time-span are not considered part of Lent. Only weekdays are included in Lent. Hence, Lent is the forty weekdays beginning with Ash Wednesday and concluding with the day before Easter.
But how is it that the church adopted "forty" as the number of weekdays in Lent?
Early Christians celebrated several feasts and observed numerous special days, many of which were inherited from their Jewish forefathers. The celebrations and observances varied from one location to another, depicting much of the history of the different regions. In the days leading up to Easter, it was common for the early Christians to fast in commemoration of the suffering that Jesus endured, but the duration of the fasting varied from one day to several weeks, depending on where the churches were located.
The first mention of forty as the number of days of preparation for Easter was at the First General Council of the church assembled in Nicaea in A.D. 325. Although this council is best known for formulating the Nicene Creed, still recited in many Christian worship services, it also issued twenty important canons regulating church discipline. The first written mention of the preparatory period for Easter lasting for forty days is in the fifth canon. Within one hundred years after that, "forty days" was universally observed throughout the church as the appropriate period of preparation for Easter.
But why was the number "forty" selected?
"Forty" has long had spiritual significance for Jews and Christians in regard to preparation. For example, Moses was with God for forty day and nights on Mount Sinai in preparation for receiving the Ten Commandments (34:28). But the primary focus for Lent is on: Matthew 4:1-2, where Jesus is portrayed as fasting for "forty" days and nights; Mark 1:12-13, depicting Jesus as being led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for "forty" days; and Luke 4:1-2, telling of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to fast and to be tempted by the devil for "forty" days. Taking into consideration how Jesus prepared for his ministry, "forty" was determined to be the number of days his followers should use in preparing for Easter.
The actual word "Lent" came into use sometime during the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. It can be traced to Old High German of the early half of the twelfth century. Its ancient German meaning was "springtime." This is appropriate because Easter always occurs in the spring of the year. "Springtime" is also appropriate because much of nature appears to come alive this time of year after being dormant during the winter, just as Easter is about coming alive after appearing to be dead. It is often said that the word "Lent" is a derivative of the word "forty," but that is incorrect.
Although Lent is ecumenical inasmuch as it is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches, the Catholics are the leaders in determining Lenten observances. As mentioned earlier, the first church council that met in Nicaea in A.D. 325 addressed, among other things, how Lent was to be observed. This is also true of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The sixteen centuries between the two councils have seen many changes in the ways that Christians observed Lent. The general mood and tone of the observances have changed markedly since the Second Vatican Council.
In earlier years, Lent was a very somber, stern and bleak period that stressed taking away all pleasures of life and devoting one's self entirely to penitence and purification, not only individually, but also as communities. Older readers will remember when many Christian families refrained, for example, from eating desserts or sweets, attending movies and sports events, or participating in parties and dances during Lent. Mardi Gras came about during those earlier years, giving people one last spree of fun and eating before having to restrict one's self during Lent. One of the main purposes of the Second Vatican Council was to bring the practices of the Roman Catholic Church into the modern world. And in addressing how Lent is to be observed, celebrating the joy of the Lenten season has replaced the somber and stern tone of earlier years.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The practice of using ashes in times of penitence is seen in both the Old and New Testaments, where one finds several references to "sackcloth and ashes." We do not know the exact origin of the Ash Wednesday services, although there appears to be mention of them as early as the tenth century. During Ash Wednesday services worshippers come forward for the clergy to draw a cross on their foreheads using ashes, serving as a reminder of human immortality and the need for penitence. The ashes historically come from burning palm leaves that were used in the previous year's Palm Sunday services. Ash Wednesday is celebrated especially by Roman Catholics, the Church of England, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodists, but also by some other Protestant churches.
Hopefully, you will have a better understanding for yourself and for the practices of others as the Lenten season begins this coming Wednesday, March 5, in preparation for Easter, which this year is April 20.
(This articles deals only with the western church calendar. Space did not provide for also looking at the Lenten practices of Eastern Orthodox churches.)
(Resources: A History of the Christian Church by Williston Walker and A History of Christianity by Kenneth Scott Latourette)