Last Updated: March 2017
One of the purposes of the Sharefaith Blog is to inform believers about the valuable ancient traditions of their faith. Most Christians are at least familiar with the names of some of these traditional celebrations–like Lent, Ash Wednesday, or Maundy Thursday–but few really know what they mean, or why they are even observed. There are some Christian denominations or religions that strictly follow these traditional holidays in their liturgical calendar, which may be one of the reasons that Christians of differing denominations choose not observe them, in an effort to distance themselves from the aspects of those denominations they do not like. However, it is a helpful exercise to explore the rich tradition behind these Christian observances and evaluate their Scriptural significance. Today, we want to investigate the period of Lent.
Christian Holidays: Lent
What is Lent?
Lent is not a single day, but is a period of forty days in the liturgical calendar. It begins on Ash Wednesday (which was February 17 of this year), and concludes on Easter. Sundays are not part of the forty-day count.
What is the history behind Lent?
Most Christian calendar observances, apart from Sunday worship, are not something taught in the Bible. In fact, the Bible warns against slavish adherence to empty religious observances. However, most Christian holidays do tie into some Scriptural event. The forty-day duration of Lent is intended to recall the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after His baptism. Lent is also a time of concentrated preparation toward the most celebrated Christian holiday–Easter Sunday.
We don’t know exactly when the practice of Lent started, but we know it was probably in the early centuries of the church. Lent, earlier known as Lenten, became attended by a host of prescriptions, laws, rules, and superstitions. The devout would eat simply and moderately. They would thoroughly cleanse their homes, their bodies, and their souls. They would allocate hours of their day to prayer, repentance, and fasting. Christians would engage in almsgiving toward the poor, or giving up a certain pet sin, or adding a certain virtue such as additional time in prayer. Some of these practices are still observed today.
What is involved with Lent?
Lent is more than just a forty-day period of fasting. Within its forty days, Lent involves other observances and celebrations. As mentioned, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a day of intentional sorrow, repentance, and remorse over sin. In some Ash Wednesday worship traditions, actual ashes are mixed with oil and applied to the forehead of worshippers in an outward manifestation of inward humility. The day before Ash Wednesday is known as Shrove Tuesday. It is sometimes called “Pancake Day.” So, what in the world do pancakes have to do with an otherwise sacred-sounding holiday? The connection has to do with fasting–a common practice of Lenten observance–and the desire to indulge the day before the fast begins. So, pancake eating became a tradition prior to the start of Lent. Unfortunately, celebrations of Shrove Tuesday have gone too far, resulting in the excesses of celebrations like Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Fat Tuesday.
Within the actual period of Lent, there is the observance of Clean Monday (or Ash Monday). Halfway through the period of Lent is the observance of Mothering Sunday, which has evolved into Mother’s Day. The fifth week of Lent is called “Passion Sunday” and begins a two-week period called Passiontide, leading up to Easter. The following Sunday, the sixth one in Lent, is called Palm Sunday, and begins the Holy Week or Passion Week. Thursday of that week is called Maundy Thursday, in which some Christians celebrate the Last Supper. Lent concludes with three days, known as the Easter Triduum. These include Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
What’s the point of Lent?
Lent, in Christian traditions, includes three main activities: prayer (including penitence), almsgiving, and self-denial (including fasting). These activities assume a spirit of humility and sobriety. Many Christians use the period of Lent as a focused time of devotion to God. Some may concentrate upon acts of devotion and self-denial such as giving up coffee, eliminating desert, limiting their entertainment, or other similar choices. Other believers make Lent a period of self-examination and repentance. Commonly, this is a time when Christians give their time or money to relief organizations, the poor, or other charitable actions.
The solemnity of Lent is a welcome change from frivolous preoccupations which threaten to consume our lives–even the lives of Christians. It is important to keep one’s focus upon Jesus–the whole reason for the observance–rather than mere external acts of religious devotion. Periods of intense religious activity are acceptable, but not to the flagrant permissiveness of other times (e.g., sinful indulgences of Mardis Gras). Life–every day and every action–is an act of worship to God, and must be lived in service to Him.
Sharefaith and Lent
Since we are right now in the period of Lent, it may be a good opportunity to share with the people in your church the significance of the period using the many media options from Sharefaith. We will devote another post to feature several of these media options. As we come closer to the climax of Lent, the Easter Season, these will be particularly helpful as you plan for that important day.
If you’re not a Sharefaith member, now is the best time to become one. Sharefaith has 80,000 sermon & worship media, including over 500 individual Easter media items from Easter sermon PowerPoints, church motion graphics, bulletin covers, church flyers, and newsletters, to service countdown timers, worship video loops, website banners, and more! You’ll find everything you need to fully brand your Easter church service, Palm Sunday, Good Friday or Lent.