A Lesson on Lent
GRN Living – 12 March 2020
You may have noticed people with a black smudge on their foreheads recently. February 26 was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian season of Lent. In the Christian tradition, the year is divided up into liturgical seasons which guide the worship for that time of year. Lent is a season of penitence in the 40 days before Easter Sunday.
While many people have heard of Mardi Gras and know about the famous celebrations in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro, the day after Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, is less glamorous and less well known.
On Ash Wednesday people are marked with the sign of the cross on the forehead. The ashes are made from dried palm leaves which are kept after Palm Sunday the previous spring and burned to make a dark black ash. The priest makes the sign of the cross with their thumb on the forehead and says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
The action of marking the forehead with a cross recalls the moment during Baptism when the newly-baptized is marked with the sign on the cross on the forehead with holy oil, known as chrism. The ritual is a reminder of what’s important in life, that material wants and desires as not as important as the inner life of the spirit.
In the Episcopal tradition, which is practiced in nine congregations on CRST, the service on Ash Wednesday calls people to “the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.”
The service continues with the Litany of Penitence, which calls people to repent and make a permanent change in their behavior to love one another, serve God and be faithful. It calls the community to repent from self-indulgence, exploitation, anger, envy, and love of worldly goods. It asks God to forgive us for failing to pray, being blind to the suffering of others, allowing cruelty and injustice, being uncharitable and prejudiced, wasting and polluting natural resources.
In his Ash Wednesday comments Pope Francis called to mind the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the desert, saying that Lent is a time for us to move into a new environment free from “verbal violence.” Lent is the time to make room for the Word of God by turning off the television, disconnecting from your cell phone, giving up gossip, rumors, and useless chatter and moving into a closer relationship with God.
Setting aside a specific time of year for prayer, meditation, fasting, and self-denial is common across all world religions from Native Lakota Traditionalism to Islam to Christianity.
The duration of the season for 40 days was set into doctrine at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. It was not until the Middle Ages in Europe that layers of ritual became attached to Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Fasting from meat and sweets is a large part of Lenten observance and the timing in late winter is not coincidental.
The celebration of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent come after the season of Epiphany. In medieval Europe the time between Epiphany and Lent transformed into an entire season of “carnival” with notable observations in Italy and Spain. Mardi Gras and carnival are major religious and secular celebrations which have transformed from pre-Christian rituals to post-modern consumer culture events.
Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” a day of feasting before the long season of deprivation. The last of the shortening and oil are used up as people head into the hungriest time of the year. The food stores from the fall harvest are almost gone but the first sprouts of spring have not yet arrived. In many ways the season of Lent historically assisted in the conservation of food through the lean days of late winter and early spring.
In modern Catholicism, it is common to fast from meat on Fridays in Lent and to eat fish instead. Many communities have Friday Fish Frys at church or restaurants which offer fish specials on Fridays in Lent.
The modern observance of Lent has deemphasized “giving up” something for Lent and encouraged people to adopt a new discipline for the season. When this writer was a child it was common to give up things like chocolate, TV, or being mean to your sister for Lent. This was particularly difficult as Girl Scout cookies usually arrive right at the beginning of Lent!
In the 21st century, we now have challenges to give up plastics for Lent, to begin a daily practice of prayer, or to fast from social media. The Lent Madness team (lentmadness.org/bracket) has even created a competition bracket for a daily faceoff between saints culminating in the Saintly 16, the Elate 8, the Faithful 4 and the Golden Halo. Last year’s winner was Saint Martha of Bethany, sister of Mary and lifelong friend of Jesus.
The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, an order of Episcopal monks in Cambridge, Massachusetts offers a daily series of videos and meditations for Lent called Signs of Life: Why Church Matters (https://www.signsoflife.org/).
Decluttering is often a Lenten discipline with Facebook groups such as 40 BAGS IN 40 DAYS (official) – 2020 where members offer support to let go of those thoughts, patterns or objects which keep us stuck.
There are three yearly cycles of readings that correspond to the liturgical year. These are organized into the Revised Common Lectionary, which is mainly used by English-speaking denominations including most mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic church in North America. 2019-2020 is Year A. Following a yearly structure for the readings ensures a wide exposure to all the books of the Bible in weekly and daily prayer over the course of three full years.
The seasons are generally recognized as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Ordinary Time (the time after Pentecost). The names and dates can vary a little bit depending on the denomination or in some more Orthodox denominations.
NOTE- This article was originally published in the West River Eagle, February 2020 and was used by permission of the author.