What is LENT and why observe it?

Next week is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of LENT. Lent is the season of fasting and self-denial observed by many Christians in the days preceding Easter Sunday each year. The word “Lent” comes from a word meaning “lengthening days,” with the Lenten season consisting of forty days in early spring. Since Easter’s date moves each year based on the lunar calendar, Lent’s dates vary from year to year. However, each year it begins on Ash Wednesday, which occurs sometime in February or early March.

Where Did Lent Come From?
Lent is neither commanded nor implied in the Bible. Instead, it is a tradition that developed slowly over the first several centuries of church history. During the first three centuries of the church Christians often prepared to celebrate Easter with a short preparatory fast of one, two, or more days. In about 190 AD the church father, Irenaeus, called Christians to fasting for short periods of time before Easter. These early, pre-Easter fasts were used to mark the time between the death of Jesus and his resurrection, and to prepare one’s heart for Easter Sunday.

How the short pre-Easter fasts of the first three centuries evolved into Lent is not entirely clear. Some early Christians in Egypt held a forty day fast beginning January 6 in imitation of Jesus’ own time of fasting. Those preparing for baptism on Easter in Rome would fast for three weeks prior, and something similar happened in other places at different times of the year. By the fourth century as Easter came to be seen universally as the primary occasion in the year for baptism … these customs developed everywhere into a standard forty-day season of fasting immediately before Easter.

Christians from a variety of traditions see it as a time of prayer, repentance, and self-sacrifice for the purpose of focusing their attention on Christ and His sacrifice in the days leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Lent begins on a humble note on Ash Wednesday when people make their way to church to receive an imprint of ashes on their forehead in the form of a cross. These are to remind us of our mortality and our dependence on God as well as the sacrifice of Christ, which makes it possible for sinful people to go to God.

Why Forty Days?
Forty is a significant number in the Bible. It is a number associated with anticipation and preparation. Moses waited on Mt. Sinai forty days to receive the Law (Ex. 34:28), Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the promised land (Ex. 16:35), Elijah walked forty days to meet with God at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and most significantly, Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before his temptation (Mark 1: 6f)

Today Lent lasts six and one half weeks, with exactly forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Sundays have never been included as fast days, since celebration rather than fasting should characterize every Sunday—the day Jesus rose from the dead.

So join us at Sugar Hill UMC next Wednesday, March 5 at 7 pm for our AshWednesday service and let’s start this journey together. The service will be interactive and family friendly for all ages 4 and up. We will also provide weekly devotions for individuals and families to use to focus on the main themes of Lent: focusing on God’s presence, confession, forgiveness and trusting in Jesus who came and lived, died and was resurrected. You can pick a copy up a free copy in the church lobby or download it each week starting March 10 from our website.

Source for much of this research: Jack Santino, All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 102.

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