What does Lent mean anyway?

What does Lent mean anyway?
By Rev. Kerry Smith

I don’t remember hearing about Lent in church when I was growing up. I don’t know if that says more about me and the fact that I wasn’t listening, or if the United Methodist Church has embraced more of this ancient Christian practice than it did in the past. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten which means lengthen and refers to the lengthening days of spring. It is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the day before Easter Sunday, Holy Saturday.

When we hear the word forty, we may think of the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert heading towards the Promised Land or we may think of the forty days and forty nights that Noah and his family and all the animals were on the ark while it rained. We may think of Moses on Mount Sinai for forty days and nights as he prepared to receive the Ten Commandments. Moses also sent spies for forty days to investigate the Promised Land. Before the great battle with David and Goliath, the Philistine and Israelite armies stood on opposite sides for forty days. The great Hebrew kings of Saul, David, and Solomon each ruled for forty years. Forty is mentioned in the Bible 146 times.

The forty days of Lent are supposed to remind us of the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness as he prepared for his ministry. Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights – I can’t even miss one meal without being hungry! Lent is a time for us as Christians to focus on service, praying, and fasting in preparation for the coming of Easter. This period of preparation has been observed since the time of the apostles, and it was formalized at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. In the early days of the Christian Church, Lent was a time for candidates for baptism to prepare.  

During the forty days of Lent, people who had committed serious sins and had separated themselves from the community of faith were also reconciled by penitence (by wearing sackcloth and being sprinkled with ashes) and forgiveness, and restored to participation in the life of the Church. This developed into an opportunity for all Christians to be reminded of their need for penitence and of their own mortality by receiving ashes on their forehead in the shape of the cross on the first day of Lent, on Ash Wednesday. This custom was introduced by Pope Gregory I, who was Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604 A.D.  Since Sundays are a mini-Easter and don’t count in the forty days of Lent, Pope Gregory had to move up the start of Lent to Wednesday to get to the number forty. I love church history!

I hope that your season of Lent will be a time when you focus on your relationship with God. How can we return to God and re-focus our lives to be more in line with Jesus?

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