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The Meaning of Lent

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of the church which we call Lent.

On that day, we receive ashes on our forehead to remind us that we are mortal beings, that we were made out of dust and will one day return to dust.

During Lent, the paraments in the church are changed to purple. The color purple is significant for a couple of reasons. One, it indicates a period of preparation, which is why we use it for both Lent, preceding Easter and Advent, and preceding Christmas. Another is that purple was often associated with royalty and a welcoming of a King, and for us that would be the two welcomes of Christ, our King: One to celebrate the birth, and the other to celebrate the gift of eternal life.

The term Lent refers to the penitential period preceding Easter. Early Christians felt that the magnitude of the Easter celebration called for special preparation. As early as the second century, many Christians observed several days of fasting as part of that preparation.

Over the next few centuries, perhaps in remembrance of Jesus’ fasting for 40 days in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–2), 40 days became the accepted length of the Lenten season. From the earliest years of Christianity, it was considered inappropriate to fast on the day of the resurrection [Easter], so Sundays were not counted in the 40 days. Thus, the Wednesday 46 days before Easter came to be regarded as the beginning of Lent.

In the early centuries, the season before Easter was also the usual period of intense training for new Christians. During this period, the catechumens (those learning what it meant to be Christians) went through the final stages of preparation for baptism, which usually occurred at dawn on Easter Sunday. As the practice of infant baptism increased, the emphasis on Lent as a training period decreased.

That, in an elongated nutshell, is Lent. That is also why we, as a reformed church, do not adhere to it as strictly as some others might. We observe the Lenten time, but we do not specifically devote to fasting or specific education during this period. Instead, most commonly people focus on giving up some other vice or habit that might be detrimental to one’s health and well-being.

Lent is a time for us to reflect on our own lives, or own habits, and our own anchors that are weighing us down from being the best people we could be. Perhaps too, it provides us an opportunity to parallel Christ’s journey in the wilderness where he forfeited food, companionship and help.

Lent is also a time to reflect and see what we can change about our lives for the better. It can be used as a time to understand our own weaknesses and shortcomings, as painful as that can be. It is a time when we recall that we are mortal, we may be insignificant in the eyes of the world, but we are significant enough for God to care about us and love us.

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