Lent: Springtime from the Ashes
While the world’s calendar shows more than a month until spring officially begins, the Christian Church’s calendar marks spring’s first day as being this Wednesday, the 6th of February. How is this? What brings spring so early?
In the calendar of the Church, the forty week days (Sundays not included) before Easter are known as Lent. This word comes from Germanic and Old English roots. Literally, it means “long day,” a recognition of winter’s close and the sun’s warmth returning. By counting the days backward from Easter (this year, 23 March), we arrive at 6 February.
So what’s so special about Lent? Easter! The Church’s highest holiday gets longest preparation time. Yet how we treat the season varies greatly among church bodies and individual believers. Those who do not observe a formal church calendar treat the time of Lent as they do any other part of the year. Those who keep the traditional times and seasons generally treat Lent as a time of individual and corporate penance, reflection, or instruction.
Whatever the specifics, Lent serves the general purpose of leading the Church out of the celebration of the Word becoming Flesh at Christmas and the spread of the Light of the World during the Epiphany season. It sharpens our focus on the specifics of Jesus’ words and deeds as He takes away the sins of the world. It is the path that leads each year “up to Jerusalem” with Jesus. There, “He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him.... (Luke 18:31-33)”
Many Christians still observe some form of fasting during all or part of Lent. They may give up some pleasurable activity for this time or may take on an added responsibility. All of these can be God-pleasing if done to honor Him and to heighten awareness of all Christ has done for us. Error creeps in if we think that God is forcing us to do something in order to please Him, to gain forgiveness, or to pay Him back. Through Christ, God is already pleased with us, has already forgiven us, and can never be repaid for all His lovingkindness.
The Church followed various schedules during its earliest days as believers began to make ready for Easter and the celebration of the Resurrection. Finally, it settled on forty days, commemorating the 40 days of Christ’s fasting and being tempted in the Wilderness. These days also remind us of our “pilgrim” status here on earth, just as Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years prior to entry into the Promised Land. Additionally, they call to mind divine judgment, as in the rain that fell for 40 days and 40 nights in the time of Noah. Yet over all, they remind us that God sustains and strengthens His people, since He fed and preserved Israel in the wilderness, protected Noah’s family and representative creatures in the Ark, and strengthened His Son to resist the tempter’s power during His fast.
The first day of Lent is known as Ash Wednesday. This comes from the ancient custom of rubbing oneself in ashes during a fast or period of penance as a sign of humility and sorrow. Often, the ashes are placed on the foreheads of the believers in the sign of the cross. This reminds us that Baptism washed away our sins and our old, sinful natures crucified with Christ.
Ashes also remind us that we still sin daily and that all our grand and glorious deeds are nothing in God’s sight. This is especially illustrated when the ashes are taken from the burning of the previous year’s branches used on Palm Sunday. The praises of the people, their “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,” have fallen silent and are consigned to the burn pile of good intentions not followed through.
Yet springtime still breaks in human hearts. We who cannot or will not always walk with Jesus have in Him a Savior and Friend who continues to draw us closer, who walks with us, and who carries us through the worst times of life, even as He carried His cross and our sins to Calvary. The “long days” are with us. The Light shines in our hearts and lives as He warms us and encourages us to grow in faith and good works.
Yours in Lenten devotion,
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