Lutherans have always observed Lent. If you’ve always been a Lutheran you may take this for granted. If you are new to Lutheranism you may wonder what this is all about. There are things about the history and meaning of Lent that may be new to both longtime and newish Lutherans.
Lent is not unique to Lutherans. Lutherans follow the ancient rhythm of the church year. The first half of the church year, from Advent through Easter follows events in the life of Christ, from his birth to resurrection. Then in the second half of the year, the season after Pentecost, we focus on the teachings of Christ and growing in discipleship.
Lent is the six week time of spiritual preparation for Easter. The word Lent is an old English word meaning “spring” or literally, “lengthen” because it comes in the spring when the days get longer.
Lent can begin as early as February 4 or as late as March 10, depending on when Easter is. Christians in the western church celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox which is March 21. There’s a complicated history behind that too but we will leave it at that.
The color of the season of Lent is purple.
It’s deep, the night-like color reminds us of mourning and sorrow as we recall Christ’s suffering. Purple is also the color of royalty to remind us that Jesus is revealed as King through his passion, death, and resurrection.
The observance of Lent in some form goes back at least to the second century. The Church father Irenaeus of Lyons (c 130-200) mentions it’s observation in his writings. The 40 days of Lent as we know it was well established by the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325.
The Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent is always the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, where he spent 40 days tempted by Satan. Forty is a significant number in scripture, bringing to mind not only Jesus’ days in the wilderness, but the 40 days in which it rained and the earth was flooded, and the 40 years the Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness.
If you actually count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, there are actually 46 days. Because it is the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, Sundays are not counted as fast days in Lent.
The history of the season of Lent has both penitential and educational roots.
The educational focus is probably the oldest. In the early church days, those who were preparing to be baptized would spend time in prayer and fasting and education for 40 days. It was customary to baptize new Christians during the Easter Vigil. As they prayed and fasted, the community would pray and fast along with them and after a while, Lent became a time for the whole church to prepare for Easter.
The penitential nature of the season came later in the 6th century when grave sinners would be sprinkled with ashes and dress in sackcloth during Lent before they were again allowed to receive communion. By the high Middle Ages ashes were placed upon all the faithful at the beginning of Lent as a sign of penitence.
Today we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday as a sign of our mortality and utter dependence upon God.
The traditional focuses of Lent have been repentance, prayer, fasting and giving alms (charity).
Fasting is what people are most familiar with as you often hear people talking about “giving up something for Lent”. Roman Catholics still refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Lutherans do not prescribe any particular form of fasting. The idea is to use this time and the practices of repentance, prayer, fasting and giving to deepen our faith and commitment to Christ. This is why most Lutheran churches offer midweek services in Lent.
What are some ways you might use Lent to deepen your faith?