On Ash Wednesday, February 10, we begin an important journey in the life
of the church.
We are on the road to Jerusalem, to an upper room in a house within the city, a
cross on Golgotha, just outside the city, a tomb in a garden near the city. This
forty-day journey that brings us to Jerusalem is called Lent. The journey is by no
means an easy one. To be sure, there is the joy of a Palm Sunday Parade, but
this is tempered by the realization of the cross that lies ahead. Yet, the journey is
a necessary one. The footsteps that lead us to the empty tomb on Easter Morning
have also followed our Lord on the dusty road to the city. The life-changing victory
of Easter is best realized in light of the Lenten preparation.
However, while we rightly think of Lent today as a season of preparation for Easter,
that function is primarily coincidental. For Lent began in baptism. The coincidence
arises from the fact that in the early Church baptism was administered only once
a year—at Easter. The “Forty Days” (Lent’s original title) was the final part of a
training period for new members which often lasted as long as three years. During
that period potential new members (called “catechumens”) received instruction in
the faith and life of the church. The conclusion of the instruction was a forty-day
intensive fast which tested the catechumens’ seriousness about being baptized.
The difficulty of this initiation shows the need of the church, surrounded by a hostile
society, to be certain about the sincerity of its new members.
The practice of the 40 days’ fast for the catechumens spread through the church
in the third and fourth centuries. It gradually became customary for the entire
congregation to join the catechumens in their fast as a sign of support. Thus Lent
also became a penitential preparation for the annual celebration of the death and
resurrection of Christ. So today Lent is a church-wide preparation for Easter, but it
was first a discipline to test discipleship.
There are clues in this season’s origins about how we might observe Lent in
2016. It stands in the church’s calendar as an annual insistence that preparation
is important to fully experience Easter’s joy. Ways to prepare might include self-
evaluation, intentional prayer times, concentrated study of scripture, probing
questions of our faith and life together, and serving others in God’s mission to the
world. A dominant theme might be not so much “giving up” something for Lent as
discovering anew what it means to belong to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Grace and peace,