Introducing Lent: A Season of Preparation and Repentance
Through deliberate forms of self-denial, Christians in Lent open their hearts to the self-giving grace of Jesus Christ and their own union with Christ.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the heart of the Christian gospel; accordingly, Good Friday and Easter climax the Christian year. Lent is a season of preparation and repentance during which we ponder our mortality and sinfulness and thus our need to die and rise with Jesus Christ—not only in once-for-all baptism but also in the daily mortification of our old self and vivification of our new self. Through deliberate forms of self-denial, Christians in Lent open their hearts to the self-giving grace of Jesus Christ and their own union with Christ.
|Mortality||Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 3:18–20|
|Penitential Psalms||Psalm 32, 38, 51, 130|
|Repentance||Psalm 50; Isaiah 55:11; Joel 2:12–17; Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21; Acts 26:17–18|
|Dying and Rising with Christ||Romans 6:2, 4, 5–6, 11; Galatians 2:19–20; Ephesians 2:4–6; Colossians 2:12, 20; Colossians 3:1, 3, 5, 9–10|
Points to Ponder
The word Lent comes from an Old and Middle English word that has to do with spring and the fact that in the Northern Hemisphere days in spring lengthen. Put together dust (representing human mortality) and the water needed for baptism on Easter Sunday and what you get in Lent is mud season. Reflection on our mortality in Lent is a salutary spiritual exercise. If you walk through a cemetery and reflect on the fact that six feet under lie a number of well-dressed skeletons, and that one’s own chances of joining them one day are high, a lot of other things in life get cast in a new light.
Similarly, reflection on how great are our sins and miseries sharpens our sense of the need for the grace of our Savior. Sorrow for sin, honest confession of it, and deliberate amendment of our sinful lives is the basic drama of everyday Christian life at the intersection of sin and grace. Lent is a time to get very thoughtful at that intersection, taking to heart our plight and God’s mercy.
The practice of a forty-day preparation period began in the Christian church during the third and fourth centuries. The number forty carries biblical significance based on the forty years Israel spent in the wilderness and Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness. The forty days of Lent begin on Ash Wednesday and continue into Holy Week. Many Catholics and Protestants fast in Lent, at least to some extent, or give up something else they are fond of. The idea is to imitate Jesus’ fast in the wilderness, to express remorse for sin, to discipline one’s life, to save something extra for the poor, and, not least, to sharpen the appetite for Easter feasting.
Catholic and some Protestant congregations mark the opening of Lent on Ash Wednesday by imposing the sign of the cross in ash on the brows of believers. (The ash is often created by burning the dried palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration.) As a period of preparation, Lent has historically included the instruction of persons for profession of faith and baptism on Easter Sunday; the calling back of those who have become estranged from the church; and efforts by all Christians to mortify the sins that cling to them and to vivify, or robustly encourage, tendencies to lead a Christ-like life. So meditation on Christ’s atoning death is entirely proper in Lent, but so is a hearty turn toward Resurrection Sunday. Lent’s destination is Easter. Without it, we would be unwilling to suffer the death of our sinful old self. The only willing suffering is suffering in hope.
The traditional color for the season is purple. Some congregations, especially Catholic ones, choose to highlight the contrast between Lent and Eastertide (the period from Easter to Ascension Day or Pentecost or Trinity Sunday) by omitting the singing of “Alleluia” during the Lenten season. Many Protestant congregations choose to observe Lent by centering Sunday worship on repentance. Others stress that all Sundays, even in Lent, are “little Easters” and thus may appropriately center not just on repentance, but also on praise.
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