The word "Lent" stems from the Middle English word "lenten", meaning "spring". Spring is the season when all of God's creation comes back to life from winter's death. Easter is the day when we celebrate Christ's resurrection.
Lent is a period of fasting and penitence traditionally observed by Christians in preparation for Easter. The length of the Lent was established in the 4th century as 40 days.
The Anglican church defines fasting as having your first solid food at noon and having only one full meal and two smaller meals that together are less than one full meal -- giving up the equivalent of one meal a day.
The Lenten season was originally based in the preparation of baptism candidates at what is called a Paschal (Passover) vigil. The candidates received heavy instruction for several weeks each session. Prayer and exorcism then took place. The earliest detailed account of these ceremonies is in Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition (about 200 AD). At the end of these ceremonies, all the faithful joined the candidates in a fast on Friday and Saturday before Easter.
40 days of instruction and fasting
Canon 5 of the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 mentions Lent as a 40-day period (six weeks). In the 4th century bishops gave instructions to the candidates. The Roman Church organized its instruction around three (later seven) "scrutinies," at which the "catechumens" were introduced to the Gospels, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer.
As basis for the length, religious leaders used the period of the 40 days in the wilderness of Moses, Elijah, and Christ. Moses, representing the Law, only approached God on Sinai after purifying himself by a fast of 40 days (Exodus 24:15-18). Similarly, Elijah, representing the Prophets, only approached God on Horeb after purifying himself by a fast of forty days (1 Kings 19:8). After his Baptism, Christ prepared himself for public ministry by fasting for 40 days in the wilderness, where Satan tried to tempt him. (Luke 4:1-2)
Originally the forty days of penance were counted from the eve of the first Sunday of Lent to the hour of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday). Next began the Paschal mystery (Christ's Passion... Holy Week), for which the prior forty days were a preparation.
Lent, now consists of two parts. The first is the four days from Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday of Lent. The second is the thirty six day period between the first Sunday in Lent and Easter Sunday. This second part of Lent is called the time of Passiontide.
In Western and Eastern churches, Sunday was never a fast day, so religious leaders made the Lenten fast exactly fit 40 days excluding Sundays. The 40 days ended on Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday), as Holy Week started. In Eastern churches, where Saturdays were also excluded from fasting, this developed into an eight-week Lent. Starting in the late 5th century, fasting in Rome began on the Wednesday before the first Sunday in Lent.
The observance of fasting or other forms of self-denial during Lent varies within Protestant and Anglican churches. These churches usually emphasize penitence.
Ashes and sackcloth
In the early centuries during lent, grievous sinners were excluded from Communion and prepared for their restoration. As an outward and public sign of their guilt and sorrow for their sins, they wore sackcloth (rough in texture) and were sprinkled with ashes. Today, the imposition of ashes on our foreheads on the first day of Lent reminds Christians of the need for penitence. And that's how we get the name Ash Wednesday.
Many religious leaders today emphasize Lent within the larger context of the 90 days of Lent-Easter-Pentecost. In this view, Lent is not a season that stands alone, but a season that makes sense only when coupled with the Easter season that follows. The season from Easter to Pentecost is often called Eastertide
Christ the Lord is risen today
The first Holy Day celebrated by the Christian church was Easter. Easter commemorates the Resurrection of Christ. The word comes from the Old English "easter" or "eastre", a festival of spring. Jesus had been crucified, then buried. But he was gone -- he had arisen from the tomb and death. He was resurrected. He was alive!
Maundy (pronounced MAWN-dee) Thursday is the English name given to the Thursday during Holy Week (also called Passion Week). Christians observe Maundy Thursday in commemoration of Christ's Last Supper. "Maundy" comes from the Latin word "mandatum", which means "commandment". This day commemorates the anniversary of the institution of Holy Communion by Jesus at the Last Supper. (Mandatum novum is Latin for "new commandment").
"Do this in remembrance of me." -- Luke 22:19
In Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches, this anniversary is celebrated in an evening service that includes Holy Communion. "Mandatum" is the first word of an anthem sung in some churches during the liturgical ceremony on this day.
In most European countries, the day is known as Holy Thursday.
The last week of Lent is one of special devotion as we remember Christ's Passion. The word "Passion" comes from the Latin word patior, meaning "I suffer". Athanasius, in his Festal Letter of 330, referred to it as "holy Paschal week."
Greek and Roman worship books called it the "Great Week" because great deeds were done by God during this week. In the 4th century, Bishops Athanasius of Alexandria and Epiphanius of Constantia used the name "Holy Week".
At first only Friday and Saturday were observed as holy days. Wednesday was added later as the day on which Judas plotted to betray Jesus. And by the start of the 3rd century the other days of the week had been added.
The pre-Nicene Church celebrated just one great feast, the Christian Passover, on the night between Saturday and Easter Sunday morning. But by late in the 4th century the various events had been separated and people began commemorating them on the days of the week on which they had occurred:
- Palm Sunday (Passion Sunday)
- Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday): Judas' betrayal and the institution of the Lord's Supper (Holy Communion)
- Good Friday: The suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus
- Holy Saturday: Jesus' body rests in the tomb
- Easter Sunday: The Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ
The early Church of Jerusalem organized dramatic ceremonies during the week at appropriate local holy sites that had been restored by the Emperor Constantine. Visitors were so moved that many of these ceremonies, such as the Palm Sunday procession and the Good Friday reverence of the cross, have spread from Jerusalem to churches worldwide.
See Harmony of the Gospels - for Holy Week below
Palm Sunday gets its name from the custom of blessing palms and of carrying portions of branches in procession, in commemoration of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The custom may be traced back at least to the 4th century. Many churches save palm leaves used during Palm Sunday services and later burn them. They use the ashes in Ash Wednesday services the following Lenten season.
On Palm Sunday, Christians celebrate the first joy of the Lenten season -- Christ's triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, where he was welcomed by crowds shouting "Hosanna" and waving and laying down palm branches before him.
It also marks the beginning of Holy Week, which holds the greatest tragedy and sorrow of the Christian year.
Jesus' triumphant return to Jerusalem is only part of the story. His miracles and
teachings have disturbed many in the Jewish council - the Sanhedrin - and some
have decided that he must be killed. Even his disciples continue to misunderstand
him. They still think that his Kingdom will be of this world, associated with military
victory over Roman occupation.
Some churches celebrate a "Passion Sunday" instead of a Palm Sunday on the day of Palm Sunday. During Passion Sunday, the passion story of Christ is recounted. This is more common when a church has less special Holy Week services and wants the congregation to hear the complete Passion story.
Traditionally the last two weeks of Lent observed as a period of devotion to the Passion of Christ.
The sufferings of our Savior, which reached their peak with his death on the cross, appear to have been thought of as an inseparable whole from a very early period. In Acts 1:3 Luke speaks of those to whom Christ "showed himself alive after his passion" [KJV]. (More modern translations have changed "passion" to "suffering" for clarity.)
Modern Passion Plays have their roots in the religious plays of the Middle Ages. The popular taste for dramatic productions was fed by early Easter religious celebrations. The clergy emphasized more and more the dramatic moments, and added new subjects, among them some of a secular nature. They introduced the characters of Pilate, the Jews, and the soldiers guarding the tomb. These additions were done more to satisfy the people's love of novelty and amusement. So the early Easter celebrations became actual dramatic performances, known as the Easter Plays. The secular aspects and the fact that these plays didn't instruct the congregation concerned many religious leaders.
The Easter Plays represented in their day the highest development of the secular drama. But people wanted to see Jesus' whole life, particularly the story of his Passion. So a series of dramas started, which were called Passion Plays, with the sufferings of Jesus being the main subject. Some of them ended with the entombment of Christ. In others the Easter Play was added to show the Savior in his glory. Still others close with the Ascension or with the dispersion of the Apostles.
By the fourteenth century, the Passion Play had complex enough that it required repeated practices prior to performance. Nearly all the Passion Plays are founded upon the Passion Play in Tyrol, Germany. At Bozen, Germany, women first started playing female roles.
The wealth of the citizens provided for magnificent productions on the public squares, where Passion Plays moved to after being expelled from churches as containing too little religious instruction. The citizens and civil authorities considered it a point of honor to make the productions as elaborate and varied as possible.
In the seventeenth century, the elaborate Jesuit dramas arose and most Passion Plays were relegated to out-of-the-way villages and to the monasteries. Public interest in the Passion Play re-awoke during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
The extent of Mary's role in Passion plays is influenced by elements from Scripture, apocryphal gospels and legends.
The making of The Pieta
Today, many churches have again added drama to the normal Sunday worship services. Small vignettes or short plays dealing with the various events of Holy Week are also making their way back into church services.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is a season of penance, reflection, and fasting which prepares us for celebrating Christ's Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Why we receive the ashes
Following the example of Ninevites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes, on Ash Wednesday our foreheads are marked with ashes in the form of a cross. The ashes, which were a symbol of purification in the Old Testament, remind us that we are mortal. They also symbolize penance.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." -- from Genesis 3:19
The ashes help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice.
The distribution of ashes comes from a ceremony of a distant age. Christians who had committed serious sins performed public penance. On Ash Wednesday, the Bishop blessed the hair shirts which they were required to wear during the forty days of penance, and sprinkled over the heads of men and marked on the foreheads of women ashes that were made from the palms from the previous year. Presumably, the women were marked on the forehead because their head was covered. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the church because of their sins -- just as Adam, the first man, was turned out of Paradise because of his disobedience. In earlier times, the distribution of ashes was followed by a penitential procession.
Forty days of penance
The penitents did not reenter the church again until Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday) after being reconciled by the forty days' penance and then sacramental absolution. In the tenth or eleventh century this penance by only grave sinners was replaced by a general rite of penitence for the whole congregation, which is what we observe today.
See Why Ashes below:
In Defense of Ashes
by Paul G. Donelson
While many of those knowledgeable in worship suggest that ashes are a sign of penitence, mortality and purification, others say that the ash is a superstitious, useless symbol.
The Bible has a number of references about ashes. The first comes in Genesis 18:27. Here Abraham is bargaining with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He suddenly realizes that he, a mere mortal, has been speaking to Almighty God. He says, "Behold I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes."
The words "dust and ashes" are used together in Job 30:19, and 42:6. The Hebrew words have the same consonant sounds. One might rightfully conclude that the word ash carries with it much the same theological connotation as the word dust.1
Dust and ashes are also synonymns of the word earth (adamah). From this word are derived Adam and the Hebrew word for man. Genesis 3:19 even makes a play on these words with: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," a sentence which is echoed in the Ash Wednesday service.
Ecclesiastes says it as well: "All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecc. 3:20). From these passages we get the sentence used in the committal service. Ashes, therefore, are a symbol of our mortality, of the fact that we are tied to the earth; nothing in us is immortal unless God gives it to us.
But ashes are also a symbol of repentance. In Jonah 3:6, after hearing of Jonah's message of repentance, the king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits "in ashes." In those days such kings were considered godlike. By sitting in ashes, the king of Nineveh shows his people that he is not immortal.
Job also makes use of the ashes symbolism. In Job 30:19 he uses it to describe his mortality. In 42:6, realizing these limitations compared to God's infinite power, he uses dust and ashes to symbolize the intensity of his repentance. Certainly, this act of despising one's self goes against the tomes of popular Christianity, which have lately suggested that one cannot love one's neighbor without first loving one's self. However, we might find Job's act more in line with what Jesus said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate . . . even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). This act of despising in the midst of repentance is best symbolized by ashes.
Ashes also symbolize our sorrow since human sorrow is often caused by the same thing that reminds us of our mortality and/or of our need to repent.
In 2 Samuel 13 Amnon rapes Tamar. Tamar's response is to "put ashes on her head" (2 Samuel 13:19). In Jeremiah 6:26 the daughters of Jerusalem are told to "roll in ashes" because they will be destroyed.
In Numbers 19:9 and 17, ashes are used in the rites of purification. Hebrews 9:13-14 draws directly upon this symbolism with these words: "For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God."
While we do not believe that ashes have any power to purify us of our sin, their use can remind us of the cleansing power of Jesus Christ, especially if that symbol is placed upon our bodies in the form of a cross.2
In fact, the use of the cross is a reminder of allusions made in The Revelation. In 7:3 and 9:4 there is the description of those who have an identifying seal on their foreheads, and this seal is the name of Christ (14:1). In 2:17 and 3:12 it is even a new name. This concept comes from Ezekiel 9:4-6, where an angel of the Lord is instructed to mark all those who were troubled at the sin around them with a cross on their foreheads.3
Jesus also makes use of this symbolism when he speaks of two towns that need to repent: "Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes" (Matthew 11:21. See also Luke 10:13).
The use of the ash was a part of the symbolism of the Jewish faith and, therefore, was naturally assumed by the early Christian Church, many of whose members were Christian Jews.
It is important for us to continue a regular regimen of repentance. John Wesley pointed out, "This repentance and faith [should be as] full as necessary, in order to our continuance and growth in grace, as the former faith and repentance are [as when we first believed], in order to our entering into the kingdom of God."4
It is unfortunate that so much of the Protestant church got away from the use of the ash as a symbol, as rich as it is. We are now beginning to take our history and our integrity in worship more seriously in rediscovering some of Christendom's more significant symbols.
What a terrible shame it would be for us if we were to simply dismiss such beautiful and meaningful tools as being the sole possession of another denomination, such as the Roman Catholic Church. We wouldn't think of eliminating the symbol of water in Baptism, or wind and fire as symbols of the Spirit, simply because someone else used them first.
The ancient Greeks once divided the cosmos into four elements: earth, fire, air and water. Another element was added later which was described as being the substance of the heavenly bodies.5 In many ways these five elements have played an important part throughout the history of God's people. The use of all of the elements, including the ash, therefore, is something that belongs to all of the Church.
Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Eerdman's Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Mich., 1976) vo. IX, p. 472, n. 4.
From Ashes to Fire (Abingdon: Nashville, 1979), p. 47.
Laurence H. Stookey, Baptism—Christ's Act in the Church (Abingdon: Nashville, 1982) pp, 110-112.
The Works of John Wesley, vol. V, (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Mich., 1978) p. 156.
Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Random House: New York, 1980), p. 185.