posted at steadfastlutherans.org on March 4,2011 by Norm Fisher
Background and Relevance
As Christians, it is extremely important that we understand where we have come from. We are Christians who live almost 2,000 years after the ascension of Jesus Christ. We are quite a ways removed from the historic moments of Christ’s life on this earth. Even so, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation, we belong to the Holy Christian Church that was created by Christ and led by his apostles. Knowing this, we are never to be ignorant of the history of the Church to which we belong. A study of the history of the Church is always a worthwhile endeavor. In that light and in preparation for the season near at hand, an examination of the historic time of Lent now follows.
History of Lent
As early as the Third Century, Christians devoted themselves to prepare for the celebration of Easter. In these early generations, two days before Easter were dedicated to the Christian practice of fasting. From the end of the worship service on Good Friday to the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter—equaling the time Jesus spent in the tomb—Christians would fast. Generations that followed increased the period of fasting to six days which was also the amount of time catechumens spent in humble preparation for the reception of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper that they would receive at the Easter service.
History shows that the length of preparation for Easter increased from one week to three weeks to six weeks, usually excluding Sundays, which were held by Christians as mini Easters. In Jerusalem, as early as the Fourth Century, Christians fasted for forty days in preparation for Easter. The forty days consisted of five days a week for eight weeks. These forty days symbolized the forty days that Moses dwelled on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:18), the forty days that Elijah journeyed to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and the forty days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).
In the Seventh Century, the western church arrived at a forty day preparation period for Easter. They were fasting for six weeks at six days a week for a total of 36 days. Beginning in that century, they decided to include the four days that preceded the first Sunday of preparation. That first day of Lent, then, was known as Ash Wednesday.
During the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther continued to observe this preparation period. Lutheran Churches continue this practice. Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent with its conclusion being Holy Saturday, the day before Christ’s resurrection. Because Sundays are mini Easters, each Sunday in Lent is in Lent and not of Lent. And each Sunday in Lent bears a historic Latin name that stems from the first word of the Introit for that Sunday. The names of these Sundays are: Invocavit, Reminiscere, Oculi, Laetare, and Judica, with Palm Sunday bearing the name Palmarum.
Etymology of Lent
For those interested in knowing where the word Lent comes from, and even for those not so interested, the word comes from the Old English word lencten or lengten, which means to lengthen. This word was applied to the season of the year when the days were lengthening, the season known as Spring. Lent and Spring therefore bear similar meanings.
Historically, Christians have prepared for the celebration of the Resurrection by fasting. Fasting was thought to be beneficial to the Christian because evil spirits used food as a means of entering the body. Fasting then limited the possibility of the Christian to contract an evil spirit. Over time, however, fasting became more of a discipline for Christians. During this period of fasting, Christians would not eat any food during the day until the middle of the afternoon. Even though the body strongly desired food, the Christian was to put this desire aside and focus instead on the things of God, the very Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Matthew 4:4). The roots of fasting can be traced back to the writings in the Old Testament. Fasting was a means for God’s people to practice control over the body. Understood in that light, fasting is still valuable for Christians today.
Many of us love to eat. And we don’t just eat a little or until we are full and we don’t always eat the best things for us. We often eat more than we should. We do so because we allow the body to control what we eat and how much. This does not have to be for God’s people. Paul writes to the Galatians, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh… And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:16–17, 24).
Such desires of the flesh appear in other ways along with gluttonous eating. Paul specifically mentions the sexuality of the Christian as greatly influenced by the flesh as well as the way we conduct ourselves with others. Truly, there are many ways in which we as Christians can practice self-control, which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:23).
None of this talk of fasting is to lead us as Christians to conclude that we must do these things to please God or to earn or keep our salvation. Quite the contrary. We are encouraged to do these things because we have been set free to do so. Lying as the driving force behind all of this preparation in Lent is true repentance. As Christians, we are to abhor our sinful natures and to confess that we are poor, miserable sinners. We are led by the Spirit to truly repent of our sins and of ourselves, meaning that we are to turn away from all that is sinful and genuinely desire to live the lives Christ Jesus has set us free to live. Not because we have to, but because we truly want to as God’s children, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Having repented of our sins, God faithfully forgives us all our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness because of the perfect work of salvation that Jesus has done for us all.
Opportunity, not Opportunities
The season of Lent serves as one opportunity for Christians to prepare for the coming celebration of Easter. The season of Lent is not made up of several opportunities of which you may pick and choose which services you want to attend. Each service is intended to be a part of the total preparation time of Lent. With that in mind, it is my hope that you take advantage of this one opportunity of six weeks to prepare for the celebration of Easter. After these six weeks of dedicated preparation, the Gospel proclamation of Good Friday and Easter Sunday will be that much sweeter to taste. Pray that God would grant this to you this Lententide.
In service to Christ and his Church,