Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and traditionally lasts 40 days excluding Sundays since Sundays are considered “little Easters.” On Ash Wednesday many believers go to their churches to participate in this service which reminds us of our mortality and need for repentance to begin our journey of preparation before Holy Week.1 During the service the pastor makes an ash mark of a cross on the forehead of the participant and says, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return.” The ashes traditionally are from the branches of Palm Sunday. As theupperroom.org says, “The palms that were waved in joy became ashes of sorrow.” 1
The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, but the end of Lent is different depending on which tradition you follow. The Catholic Church recognizes the season of Lent on Holy Thursday 2 (or Maundy Thursday as it is referred to in the United Methodist Church), while the United Methodist Church recognizes the end of Lent on Holy Saturday3, the Saturday before Easter. According to the United Methodist Church, “Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection.” 3
It is unclear who exactly developed the concept of Lent. Some suggest that it began in the apostolic age. Others believe that there is not enough information to support this, but that we can tell it began to develop in concept within the first three centuries of the Church. It seems, in its earliest form, believers during the apostolic age would fast on Fridays to remember Christ’s death. Over time, it is believed this tradition became holy week. At some point the concept of preparation for this holy week developed. 4
Historically, the Catholic Church has asked its adult members abstain from meat (except fish) on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. The also ask that they have one full meal a day with two much smaller meals only if needed to maintain strength to perform their day-to-day tasks. Overtime this has changed. Many people nowadays choose something to fast during Lent which tends to be a distraction from their relationship with Christ or something they do often in order to be constantly reminded of this preparation for holy week and develop a deeper and renewed relationship with the Savior. 5
A period of 40 days has often been a time of preparation. Jesus wandered in the wilderness with the Holy Spirit for forty days and fasted. Even Moses was in the presence of God for 40 days fasting on Mount Sinai in preparation to receive the commandments. 6 The season of Lent is also a time of preparation for us as believers.
As we begin our journey of Lent together, let us remember we are participants in an old history of believers gone and current believers. In your fasting, preparation, and reflection, you are participating with many believers all over the world in this tradition. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (12:1).
1) What do you think is the benefit of beginning Lent on Ash Wednesday with the reminder of "from dust you came and to dust you will return"? How does it set the tone for the rest of the season?
2) What do you think is the benefit of ending Lent on Holy Thursday or Holy Saturday? Do you feel doing one or the other has more significance?
3) What do you think about the original Lent fasting schedule of the Catholic Church as described above?
4) Though we only fast on Tuesdays during this journey, how will you use the whole season of Lent as a time of preparation and repentance through self-examination and reflection?