Do Lutherans “Do” Lent?

I often hear this time of year “What is Lent?”  I thought I might reflect with you about what it is, where it came from and how we at BLC approach this season of the church. 
 
What Is Lent?
Lent is the season of fasting and self-denial observed by many Christians in the days preceding Easter Sunday each year. The word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning “lengthening days,” with the Lenten season consisting of forty fast days as days lengthen in early spring.  Since Easter’s date moves each year based on the lunar calendar, Lent’s dates vary from year to year. However, each year it begins on Ash Wednesday, which occurs sometime in February or early March.  This year it began on March 6th.  Last year it began on February 14th.  In 2020, Lent will begin on February 26th.   
 
Where Did Lent Come From?
Lent is neither mentioned nor implied in the Bible. Instead, it is a tradition that developed slowly over the first several centuries of church history. During the first three centuries of the church Christians often prepared to celebrate Easter with a “short preparatory fast of one, two, or more days.”  These early, pre-Easter fasts were used to mark the time between the death of Jesus and his resurrection, and to prepare one’s heart for Easter Sunday. How the short pre-Easter fasts of the first three centuries evolved into Lent is not entirely clear. Some early Christians in Egypt held a forty day fast beginning January 6 in imitation of Jesus’ own time of fasting. Those preparing for baptism on Easter in Rome would fast for three weeks prior, and something similar happened in other places at different times of the year. By the fourth century, “As Easter came to be seen universally as the primary occasion in the year for baptism … these customs coalesced everywhere into a standard forty-day season of fasting immediately before” the Easter festival.  Canon 5 from the Council of Nicea (325 AD) mentions the period of “Lent,” and a few years later Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, wrote to his people and urged them to observe the 40-day fast which “all the world” was observing.

 

Why Do People Fast at Lent?
In the Roman Catholic tradition Lenten fasting has been seen as a form of penance for past sins. Christians from a variety of traditions see it as a time of prayer, repentance, and self-sacrifice for the purpose of focusing their attention on Christ and His sacrifice in the days leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Lent begins on a humble note on Ash Wednesday when people make their way to church to receive an imprint of ashes on their forehead in the form of a cross. The dust or dirt remind us of our mortality and our dependence on God when we hear the words “Remember, we are dust and unto dust we shall return.”  

 

Why “40” Days?
Forty is a significant number in the Bible. It is a number associated with anticipation and preparation. Moses waited on Mt. Sinai forty days to receive the Law (Exodus 34:28), Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years before entering the promised land (Exodus 16:35), Elijah walked forty days to meet with God at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), and most significantly, Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness before his temptation (Mark 1:13). Even after Christians had come to agree on a forty-day period of fasting before Easter, there was little uniformity in how churches counted the days. In Jerusalem Lent lasted eight weeks and people fasted Monday through Friday for a total of 40 fast days. In other places people fasted for six weeks, six days a week, making 36 fast days. Many in medieval times pointed to this period of thirty-six days “as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five.” (See Reference Below) Today Lent lasts six and one half weeks, with exactly forty fast days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Sundays have never been included as fast days, since celebration rather than fasting should characterize every Sunday–the day Jesus rose from the dead.

 

Do Protestants Observe Lent?
At the time of the Reformation the traditions surrounding Lent were almost entirely swept away, as part of the Reformers’ general rejection of the use of all ceremonies in worship that were at best not understood by ordinary people and at worst interpreted in a highly superstitious manner.  In other words, the emerging Lutheran and other Protestant churches wanted to distance themselves from anything looking “Roman Catholic.”  However, over the past two centuries Lent has made a comeback among Protestants.  Today it is commonly observed by Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians and members of other mainline Protestant denominations. In recent years other Protestants such as Baptists and non-denominational congregations have begun to adopt the practice of fasting from something during Lent. While the practices, timing, and even the theology behind Lent has differed over the years and continues to differ between churches and individuals, many Christians continue to prepare for Easter Sunday through some form of fasting.  

 

Lent at BLC
We offer a theme or focus for people to use, pray and act upon during these 40 days this season offers.  This year’s theme is “God Sees Beauty in our Brokenness” which is based upon the story of the Prodigal Son from the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  We will hear this well-known story on the 5th Sunday of Lent (April 7th).  At the heart of the story is a son who has decided to return penniless, broke and broken.  While still a distance away, the father sees the son returning and runs out to greet and welcome him back.  The father saw beyond the brokenness of the son- seeing an inner beauty that is within us all.  Through our Sunday worships and Wednesday midweek services, we hope to explore what this brokenness and beauty may look like in our lives.
 
We are offering our 3rd annual Lenten devotional in which reflections prepared by people of BLC and the community will be offered each day reflecting on the theme of brokenness and beauty.  This has been a powerful way for our community to grow together learning a little bit more about each other walking the journey of faith.  Our Wednesday soup suppers offer a chance for people to come together for fellowship and community building.  We have unveiled a special “Lent/Easter” cross that will be used for the two seasons.  During Lent folks will be invited to write a brokenness or pain on the cross.  Then we will take colored plates collected and break them to create a colorful mosaic of plate pieces that will be displayed on Easter.  Our brokenness will literally turn into something beautiful. 
 
Each Lent we partake in a particular “almsgiving”- a special offering which we lift up a work or ministry outside of BLC.  This year our focus is two-fold: half collected will go to the Nabor House in Houston (a Christian preschool the youth from BLC did their service day at last summer in Houston) and the other half to Join the Movement (a 501c3 non-profit organization to provide awareness and education about what human trafficking, sexual assault and internet safety).   
 
When does Lent end?
I smile when folks ask me when Lent ends because what they are really asking is when can they return to the things they gave up for the 40 day season (i.e, chocolate, tv, etc).  They want to know when the “Lent fast” ends.   The liturgical Season of Lent ends with the celebration of the evening service on “Maundy” or Holy Thursday of Holy Week.  The church enters into the 3 holy days or the Sacred Triduum of Jesus’s last moments on earth.  Many though will continue as a spiritual discipline what they gave up or took on for the season of Lent through Easter Sunday and others beyond as part of a life change. 
 
Postlude
As we begin this reflective or introspective season of Lent, I pray your journey to meet Jesus in a new way is fruitful.  Lent ultimately is about our relationship with Jesus.  We are invited to spend well-meaning time thinking about life, death, relationships, faith and Jesus these 40 days. Lent is much like life- a clock that is ticking.  We have the opportunity and invitation to use the time wisely or waste it away.
 
Whether you give something up or take something on, do it with charity and focus.  If you choose not to give up something or do something differently, try to focus on the image of the father running to the son in the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  All too often we think we are unworthy carrying a deep hurtful shame about what we have done or haven’t done in our relationship with God.  God comes running to us this Lenten day and always- never forget that.
 
Turn back to God with all your heart and let God embrace you as the beautiful beloved son and daughter you were created to be!  In the end, we are not defined by the things we have done or haven’t done.  NO!  We are defined by the God who loves us no matter what.  Take some time this Lent to know, feel, see, taste and touch the goodness of God.  
 
~PJ
 
References: Paul F. Bradshaw and Hoffman, Lawrence A., eds., Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, vol. 5, Two Liturgical Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999).          

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