The Easter Season is upon us! On Wednesday, our church observed a special prayer service to commemorate what is known in most of the Christian world as Ash Wednesday. In fact, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (called Quinquagesima Sunday in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions) we spent some time reflecting on the subject of this special season. The sermon was actually entitled “I gave up Lent for Lent.”
Every Friday during the Lent season, we will be posting a consideration of Lent and/or Easter. During the Passion Week, there will be daily posts on Christ himself and his suffering, journeying through that time. We will then bring everything to a crescendo on Easter Sunday.
Lent and Pentecost
The term Lent is from the Germanic languages. It was the ancient word for the season of Spring
In most of the world, this period of fast is called the tessarakoste – literally, “the forty days.” Its observance shadows the Jewish period of pentekoste or “fifty days.” Like Pentecost, Lent is meant to be a secular observance meaning that it is not accompanied with ritual or liturgy. Both Lent and Pentecost were intended to be times when the adherents would be continually reminded of something of significance while going about their usual routines.
Although there are few original sources on the topic, it is possible that tessarakoste became part of the church tradition when some of the Germanic tribes, like the Lombards, converted to Christianity and brought their Teutonic traditions into the church.
The connection of tessarakoste before Easter and pentekoste after is not accidental. Originally, terrarakoste was part of a larger fifty-day period. Thus, the church had two special secular observances around Easter – one before and one after. Almost a third of the liturgical year revolves around Easter.
Sometime in the 4th or 5th centuries, in the West, the period was shortened to forty days, not including Sundays. Thus, in the Western traditions, it runs from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). In the Eastern traditions, Sundays are included so the period runs from Clean Monday until Easter Sunday.
The Practices of Lent
The Lent season is marked by four practices intended to bring the believer into a state of preparation for Holy Week, also known as the Passion Week or the Easter celebration. The four practices are:
We will look at each practice individually but really they are two sets of two. Prayer will make our sin manifest and thus lead to penitence; and fasting frees us from the need for extras and thus we give it away in almsgiving. All four involve surrendering something that human nature desires in favor of the things God longs for us to do – hate sin and love our neighbors.
There were no standard prayers for the time of Lent although it is expected that the believer will make a special effort to engage in prayer during the weeks of Lent.
In more liturgical churches, specific prayers are presented during the Sunday worship gatherings that are meant as anchor points for the individual’s prayer life during this time.
Confession and repentance of sin are supposed to characterize the life of a believer, but at no time is repentance brought to the forefront as it is during lent.
In the Western tradition, formal confession and penitence begins on Ash Wednesday. This gave rise to the wild parties and debauchery of Mardi Gras and Carnival in the day or week prior. Believe it or not, it was the clergy who initiated this practice in the mistaken belief that it was better to sin and get it out of your system and then seek forgiveness rather than sin during the Lenten period!
The Roman Catholic tradition commands fasting from eating meat during Lent. Some modern Catholics feel that this is too stringent and only fast on Fridays during the season. They would have been shocked to know that in the ancient church, this Lenten fast was actually just a preparatory fast for the extreme fasts of the Passion week.
The fasting actually derives from an entirely different observance – baptism. When someone professed a faith in Christ, the early church had enacted a rather elaborate series of tests to prevent false believers from being incorporated into the church. The last of these tests was a fast, of varying lengths, prior to baptism.
It made good sense to schedule baptisms for Easter Eve, so eventually the fasts were placed before Easter. After the Nicene Council when Christianity became the “norm” for the Roman Empire, this fast was merged with the secular observance of tessarakoste.
There was considerable debate as to the length of the fast in the ancient church, but eventually the church leaders seem to have settled on forty days because of the recurrence of the time period in the Hebrew Scriptures. By this time, Germanic believers had already introduced their forty day celebration of Lent – or Spring – and the two were simply fused into one celebration.
As with the other practices, giving to the poor was also supposed to be a regular activity for believers. Unfortunately, it is often neglected. The Lent season, a season of fasting, is the perfect time to reflect on how we are aiding the less fortunate of our society.
Almsgiving serves two functions. Yes it helps the poor, but it helps us to realize how much we actually have and take for granted.
What Are We Doing at Heritage?
For many modern believers, fasting is considered passe. We view it as an ancient practice that we do not need to practice. Likewise, repentance and prayer are viewed as private matters. The translation of that is that we rarely actually fast, repent or pray. And of the practices, almsgiving is perhaps the most neglected.
For most believers, the primary charitable recipient is their church and the amount rarely exceeds the tithe or 10%. We give little or nothing to those less fortunate than us.
This year, I am challenging Heritage (our church) to reduce their food consumption by 1/3 – to either give up one meal per day or simply cut quantities by 1/3. I am also challenging them to convert this to dollars and cents, and set that money aside IN CASH. On Good Friday, we will have a special offering where we will bring this money together, count it and then give it to a worthy cause.
At present, I am considering donating it to a local charity like Food for Children or the NH Food Bank, or a homeless shelter. We will be praying about where to give the money during the Lenten season.