I never participated in Lent, but I have heard people talk about it and it was always mentioned in the days coming up to Easter. So I decided to stop wondering about it and do some research. Here is what I found out about the history of lent and how it works.
What is Lent?
Lent is a period of forty days where Christians prepare themselves to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The term 'Lent' comes from the Anglo-Saxon words 'lencten' (spring) and 'lenctentid' (spring tide/March). (' target='_blank'>www.catholiceducation.org)
The preparation is reminiscent of the forty days Jesus spent in the desert where He gave up all luxury and it usually consists of prayer, self-reflection and sacrifice (fasting). It may sound like a sombre affair but I think it is the exact opposite: it's a happy event wherein Christians endeavour to improve their relationship with God by placing their focus on what He did for us.
It reminds us of the cross He had to bear to His own fate on the day He gave His life for us.
Lent as we know it today did not originate on a specific day, it evolved over the past centuries and its practice was mentioned as early as the beginning of church. In modern times, it is commonly seen as a Catholic custom, but many churches take part in Lent whether they are Catholic or Protestant. (www.rayfowler.org)
The Western and Eastern churches observed Lent differently and some of the churches believed they should fast for one day, some for forty days, some made their fasting days last for forty hours. Around the fourth century it was agreed by many church leaders to fast for forty full days.
Depending on the church, the days leading up to Easter day were counted differently and Lent could last from six to eight weeks. Some churches fasted from Monday to Friday and others from Monday to Saturday. On fasting days there was only one meal to be had at 3pm and depending on which area of church you were from, the meal would be either purely vegetarian or it could include fish but no product from flesh was allowed.
Today there are still variations in how the lenten period is observed by different churches. In Western churches Lent starts on the seventh Wednesday before Easter day (Ash Wednesday) and ends on the day before Easter Sunday (Holy Saturday). (resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/lent.html) Eastern Churches start Lent on the seventh Monday before Easter day and ends it on the Friday nine days before Easter day.
The week before Lent is called the Holy week and it is during this week where prayer becomes more frequent and fasting intensifies. Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday and this is the day everyone partaking in Lent feasts on whatever they are going to give up for this period. Pancakes used to be the popular dish to make in order to clear the cupboards of food they are going to give up.
Shrove Tuesday (or pancake day) gave rise to fun games such as the pancake race. The story behind this is that around 1445 a woman ran late for the church service on Shrove Tuesday because she was making pancakes. She ran out of her kitchen upon hearing the church bells with her apron, scarf and the pancake she was making at the time in order to make it in time for confession!
This became a sport with some rather strict rules where the racer has to wear an apron with a scarf and the pancake must be tossed at the beginning and the end of the race. I would be a judge at this event. As long as I get to eat a pancake.
Lent in modern society
In the modern day Lent seems to be more relaxed, more personal and it is accepted to sacrifice other things than meat and animal products. I interviewed a few people that have observed Lent in the past and I asked them to name a few things they have given up for God. A lot of them have given up foods they enjoy having such as pasta, chocolate or alcohol.
It seems that sacrificing does not always mean to fast, it can also be to stop doing something you enjoy. The point is that the sacrifice should be something you hold dear to your heart and would find hard to give up for forty days. It must be hard for you to avoid it and it is in the time where you crave it that you must pray to God to grant you perseverance. It is in this time that you remember Him.
It brings you closer to Him because you are reminded to think about the cross He had to bear and that whatever problem you have is not as big as you think it is, because He is carrying us in His hands. I think that is the point of fasting for Lent.
Will you partake in Lent this year?
There is no command in the Bible that tells Christians to take part in Lent, but there is no command for us to celebrate Easter and Christmas either. It sounds like a very hard custom to partake in and one must consider it in all seriousness, giving up a sin or something you won't miss will not suffice and this is not an opportunity to lose weight either.
I am excited about Lent. I think it is a very special custom and I wish I knew about it earlier. I like to think about it as spring cleaning for the soul. The dawn of a new season where we as Christians can rid ourselves of the past and molt into a 'better self': a ' new and improved' version.
After all the research I feel like I have only scratched the surface of what Lent really is and for me to truly understand it I will have to partake in it. I am not sure what I will decide to do, it starts on 5 March this year. What will you give up for Lent this year?
Your Christian new year's resolutions begin here.
Leanne van Rensburg was born in 1988 and grew up on a farm in a small town in South-Africa. After school she chose a career in science and obtained degrees in biotechnology and microbiology. She moved to Australia in 2012 and is currently working as an oncology technician in Sydney. Family, friends, horses, photography and travelling are a few things that add value to her everyday life. She is a adventurous person that loves taking risks and trying new things. Writing comments for Christian Today is one of her latest undertakings.
Leanne van Rensburg previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/leanne-van-rensburg.html