Christians around the world will be challenged to wrestle with this question during the season of Lent. Lent, from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, is the 40-day period (excluding Sundays) preceding Easter Sunday. It is a time of personal reflection and devotion, in which we examine our relationship with God as we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In 2011, Lent will be March 9 – April 23.
Lent follows in the Jewish tradition of having a period of preparation before major religious observances. The 40 day length reflects the biblical examples of forty days of fasting from food that were a common part of close encounters with God in the Bible. Moses fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). Elijah fasted for 40 days on the journey to Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, fasted for 40 days before being tempted by the devil in the wilderness and then starting His public ministry (Matthew 4:2).
Many Christians choose to abstain from certain activities during Lent, specifically something that will be a sacrifice for them. While not always true biblical fasting from food, it is a reminder of the 40 day fasts of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus who lived on a reduced diet during their period of personal reflection and devotion. In our abstinence, we are to spend our freed up time with God. When we crave what we gave up, we can remember what Jesus gave up for us. We also are to examine the barriers that come between us, and how we might permanently get rid of them with help from the Holy Spirit. Part of the Lenten tradition is to be more intentional in one or more spiritual practices such as reading the Bible, praying, doing mission work, et cetera.
Some key days in the early part of the Lenten season include:
Shrove Tuesday: The day before the beginning of Lent is called Shrove Tuesday (3/8/11), which comes from the old custom of confessing one’s sins (being shriven) prior to the season of fasting and prayer. The day is often marked with a celebration called “Mardi Gras,” a French term meaning “fat Tuesday.” The term reflects the custom of parading a fat ox through the streets of Paris on Shrove Tuesday. The Mardi Gras is not a Church celebration in the strictest sense. It was an outgrowth of an ancient Roman custom of extensive merrymaking before any period of fast.
Ash Wednesday: The first day of Lent (3/9/11). Pastors burn the palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, bless the ashes, and use them to mark a cross on the foreheads of worshippers stating the words from Genesis 3:19, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are worn throughout the day as a symbol of sorrow for sins. In biblical times sprinkling oneself with ashes was a sign of repentance, i.e. turning away from our sin. Lent begins with our humility before God with the mark of ashes.
How is it with your soul?