“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And He fasted for forty days and forty nights.” Mathew 4: 1-2
The recent appearance of actor Mark Wahlberg with his “40 Day Challenge” on NBC’s Today morning program reminded many in the general public that the Christian season of Lent is upon us. For Western Christians, including Roman Catholics, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the ubiquitous ashes on the forehead. Eastern Christians begin Lent on a Monday. [For the Eastern Orthodox this year, Lent started Feb. 27 while Eastern Catholics begin their Lent two days prior to Ash Wednesday every year.]
For such an important season, the origins of Lent and the practice of the season have varied greatly over the centuries. Lent in its contemporary 40-day observance, inspired by Jesus’ 40 days in the desert after His Baptism, was probably not finalized until the late fourth century. Ash Wednesday appears as late as the 8th century.
Regardless of the history of this season, Lent has one well-known purpose—repentance—and a more obscured one—preparation for Easter. Lent is a time when Christians, through the practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are called to repent and thereby become closer to God. Additionally, various voluntary abstinences from material things are often selected by the faithful. Contemporary choices include such things as sweets, video games and alcohol. Increased time spent in private and public prayer is a choice made by many.
Lesser known is that Lent is not just temporally connected with Easter Sunday, but serves as the preparation period for Easter, when the great mystery of Christ’s Resurrection is celebrated with great fervor.
Within the Catholic Church and other churches that still utilize the lengthy ancient catechumenate process for preparing adults for baptism, Lent serves as a period with several preparatory rituals prior to the catechumens’ baptisms during the Easter Vigil on the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. For the already-baptized faithful, the Lenten disciplines prepare us to renew our baptismal promises on Easter Sunday. Public worship also has a different “feel” to it, with Lent-specific hymns, simple church decorations and unique Lenten practices such as Stations of the Cross and Palm Sunday celebrated.
Regardless of whether a Christian is a member of a liturgical church or not, observance of the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is recommended to better one’s relationship with the Lord.
Rev. Michael Hendrickson is the Pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gilroy and an active participant in the Interfaith Clergy Alliance of South County. He can be contacted at [email protected].