Not all Christian people celebrate Lent. As a personal reflection, I didn’t understand the word Lent or what it meant to Christians until I was an adult. And after I learned about Lent, I had to wonder why I had not learned about it before. It certainly seems like a Christian-like thing to do. But for me, and maybe many other Christians, it is not a natural thing to do, so each individual must decide for themselves to be specific in its celebration. At the very least, this research has helped me to understand the celebrations and the symbolism behind them.
The holiday is celebrated by many denominations in many different ways, but for the most part, Lent is a six-week-long event marked in the Christian calendar, where the meaning is to be “encouraged to find our own method of confronting our sinfulness, remembering our mortality, and giving thanks for the gift of salvation we receive through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
According to some dictionaries, the word “Lent” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term “lencten” (relating to the lengthening of days), which actually translates to “spring.”
In America, the holiday is 40 days long—not including Sundays. (So, technically, it’s 46 days long.) Why is it 40 days, you might wonder? It is supposed to be a time of preparation and focus, reminiscent of Jesus’ time in the wilderness before he started his public ministry.
This year, Lent began on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. The first day of Lent is called Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, ministers, pastors or priests gather ashes from the previous Palm Sunday and rub them on the congregations’ foreheads.
Why 40 days?
40 is a significant number in Jewish-Christian scripture:
- In Genesis, the flood which destroyed the earth was brought about by 40 days and nights of rain.
- The Hebrews spent 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the land promised to them by God.
- Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai.
- Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his ministry.
Most Christians regard Jesus’ time in the wilderness as the key event for the duration of Lent.
The color purple
Purple is the symbolic color used in some churches throughout Lent, for drapes and altar frontals.
Purple is used for two reasons: first because it is associated with mourning and so anticipates the pain and suffering of the crucifixion, and secondly because purple is the color associated with royalty, and celebrates Christ’s resurrection and sovereignty.
Shrove Tuesday is more commonly celebrated in the United Kingdom. It is the day before Lent starts: the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of penitence, to clean the soul, and a day of celebration as the last chance to feast before Lent begins. Shrove Tuesday is sometimes called Pancake Day after the fried batter recipe traditionally eaten on this day. But there’s more to Shrove Tuesday than pigging out on pancakes or taking part in a public pancake race. The pancakes themselves are part of an ancient custom with deeply religious roots. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the ritual of shriving that Christians used to undergo in the past. In shriving, a person confesses their sins and receives absolution for them. When a person receives absolution for their sins, they are forgiven for them and released from the guilt and pain that they have caused them.
In the Catholic or Orthodox context, the absolution is pronounced by a priest. This tradition is very old. Over 1000 years ago a monk wrote in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes:
In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes
Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration as well as penitence, because it’s the last day before Lent. Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren’t allowed in Lent.
During Lent there are many foods that some Christians – historically and today – would not eat: foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods. So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn’t last the forty days of Lent without spoiling. Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour.
Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some other churches hold special services at which worshippers are marked with ashes as a symbol of death and sorrow for sin. In Ash Wednesday services churchgoers are marked on the forehead with a cross of ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality. The use of ashes, made by burning palm crosses from the previous Palm Sunday, is very symbolic.
God our Father, you create us from the dust of the earth. Grant that these ashes may be for us a sign of our penitence, and a symbol of our mortality. (Traditional Ash Wednesday prayer).
Symbolism of the ashes
The marking of their forehead with a cross made of ashes reminds each churchgoer that:
- Death comes to everyone
- They should be sad for their sins
- They must change themselves for the better
- God made the first human being by breathing life into dust, and without God, human beings are nothing more than dust and ashes
This year, the official end of Lent is on Thursday, April 9, three days before Easter Sunday. However, there’s an entire list of events leading up to the finale that’s called Holy Week. Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. This marks Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, where he received palm branches at his feet. After Palm Sunday comes Holy Wednesday, which acknowledges Judas Iscariot’s plan to deceive Jesus. That’s followed by Maundy Thursday and commemorates Jesus’s last supper—this is the official end of Lent, but not the finish of Holy Week. Next is Good Friday, when Christians recall the crucifixion of their Savior. The final day of Holy Week is Easter, when believers acknowledge that Jesus rose from his tomb.
Check April’s Webstable Soup for more about Holy Week.