A Holy Lent

In case you missed it, this past Wednesday, we kicked off the season of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service. This time of year, I always get a lot of questions about Ash Wednesday, and Lent and Easter. Someone always asks me, what is Ash Wednesday all about? Or what does Lent mean? Or what do these have to do with Easter? 

So I want to explain about Ash Wednesday, and Easter and Lent even Mardi Gras because all of these are tied together. 

Let’s look at the season of Lent. What is Lent? Lent is a season of the Christian Year where followers of Jesus center their lives on preparing their hearts for Easter. Many Christians during Lent will focus on living a simple life. They may fast from certain foods or certain activities as a way of limiting those things that distract them from Jesus. We may spend more time studying the Bible. Or spend more time praying in order to grow closer to God.

The season of Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until Easter. It is actually 47 days long. But we don’t count Sundays during Lent because every Sunday is like a little Easter. If you count just the days other than Sundays, there are 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Lent. That’s why we talk about the 40 days of Lent.  

By the way, the number 40 has a lot of symbolism for Christians. It reminds us of when God flooded the earth. The Bible tells us that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Centuries later, after the Hebrews refused to enter God’s Promised Land, they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness. And centuries later after Jesus was baptized, he spent 40 days in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. So that number 40 represents a time of ‘cleansing’ in preparation for what God wants to do next in our lives. So, the 40 days of Lent are meant to prepare us for what God will do on Easter. 

Another question I get every year is how do we determine when Easter is celebrated? Easter is on a different Sunday every year, why is that? Well in 325 AD, the leaders of the church met together in the town of Nicaea, which is located in modern day Turkey. Among many things they accomplished was to establish that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox.

Did that clear it up? No! Well, the vernal equinox is what scientists call the beginning of spring, which is March 21st. So, Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Of course, the moon is on a 28-day cycle which explains why Easter isn’t on the same day every year. 

Another question I get is about Ash Wednesday. What is Ash Wednesday? Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Traditionally, many churches begin Lent with an Ash Wednesday service, just like we did, where we recognize our mortality. We confess our sin, we ask God’s forgiveness for allowing our lives to get off track, and we turn away from all of those things that pull us away from God. We recognize life as a precious gift from God and recommit our lives to Jesus. 

Many Christians make resolutions to give up some indulgence or some bad habit as a way of committing to change their lives during Lent so that they might become more like Christ. We call that fasting. Fasting is sometimes giving up something we enjoy and sometimes it is giving up some habit that is harmful to us all because we want to prepare our hearts for Easter. 

In an Ash Wednesday service, the pastor will usually mark a person’s forehead with ashes in the sign of the cross. In Jewish and Christian history, ashes are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality, because when we die, our bodies eventually decompose and we become dust/dirt/ash/whatever. Repentance, because long ago, when people felt remorse for something they did, they would put ashes on their head and wear a “sackcloth” to remind them that sin is pretty uncomfortable and leads to the death of the spirit. This was their way of confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.

Since Lent is meant to be a time of simple living, and fasting and repentance, people would clean out their cupboards before Ash Wednesday. They would get rid of all the sugar and yeast to makes cakes and sweet breads. Even meat was considered a luxury so the entire community would come together and have a giant feast to get rid of this extravagant food.

Which is where Mardi Gras comes in. Mardi Gras is French for ‘Fat Tuesday.’ It refers to the day before Ash Wednesday when people would have these great feasts as a way of getting rid of all of this rich food. Through the years Mardi Gras has evolved into an excuse to have a pretty wild party. It has very little if anything to do with preparing for the Lenten season of repentance and simplicity. But Christians still know its origin and hang onto the true spirit of the season. 

As we begin our journey through Lent, it is right to be in a spirit of repentance, seeking God’s forgiveness, longing for God’s holiness. Shortly, Easter will arrive, and we will experience the joy of salvation.

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