Learning about Lent by Pastor Chris Meirose
At the beginning of any discussion about Lent it should remind ourselves that if you think of Lent as a season to earn God's favor by your good intentions or good works, then you've got a theological problem. God's grace has been fully given to us in Jesus Christ. We can't earn it by doing extra things or by giving up certain other things in fasting. If you see Lent as a time to make yourself more worthy for celebrating Good Friday and Easter, then perhaps you shouldn't keep the season until you've grown in your understanding of grace. If, on the other hand, you see Lent as a time to grow more deeply in God's grace, then you're approaching Lent from the right perspective.
Lent in the Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. Lent is generally regarded as a time of sacrifice for Jesus. This can be done by giving something up (specific foods and TV are popular options), or by adding something like a spiritual discipline to your daily routine. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer which stems from practices in the ancient church where Lent was a time for new converts to be instructed for baptism and for believers caught in sin to focus on repentance. Over time, all Christians came to see Lent as a season to be reminded of their need for penitence and to prepare spiritually for the celebration of the resurrection of their Lord Jesus Christ.
Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Like all Christian holy days and holidays, it has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same: self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. Early church father Irenaus wrote of such a season in the earliest days of the church, but back then it lasted only two or three days, not the 40 observed today.
In 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting, but it's unclear whether its original intent was just for new Christians preparing for Baptism, but it soon encompassed the whole Church.
The way churches counted those 40 days varied depending on location. The idea of forty days is to parallel the time that Jesus spent in the desert before the beginning of his public ministry, where he endured temptation by Satan. In the eastern church, believers only fasted on weekdays. The western church's Lent was one week shorter, but included Saturdays. But in both places, the observance was both strict and serious. Only one meal was taken a day, near the evening. There was to be no meat, fish, or animal products eaten.
Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima (Fortieth) Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to ensure the exact number of 40 days in Lent—not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Gregory is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name. As Christians came to the church for forgiveness, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: "You are dust, and to dust you will return" (Gen 3:19).
By the 800s, some Lenten practices were already becoming more relaxed. Soon, Christians were allowed to eat after 3 p.m. By the 1400s, it was noon. Eventually, various foods (like fish) were allowed, and in 1966 the Roman Catholic church only restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It should be noted, however, that practices in Eastern Orthodox churches are still quite strict.
Let me be very clear on this - Lent is not a requirement for Christians. If the practice of a spiritual discipline helps you grow in God's grace, then by all means do it. But if it doesn't, don't feel like you must do it. If practicing Lent helps you prepare for a deeper celebration of Good Friday and Easter where we celebrate the risen Christ, if it allows you to grow in God's grace, then by all means keep it. If Lent isn't your cup of tea, then don't feel obligated to keep it. You should realize, however, that millions of Christians - Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Independent - have found that recognizing the season of Lent enriches our worship and deepens our faith in God.
If you would like to know more about First Congregational Church you can visit us on the web at http://WasecaChurch.org or join us for worship at 10:00AM each Sunday, visitors are always welcome!