The season of Lent has not been well observed in much of evangelical Christianity, largely because it was associated with liturgical worship that some churches were eager to reject.
However, much of the background of evangelical Christianity, for example the heritage of John Wesley, was very "high church."
of the churches that had originally rejected more formal and deliberate
liturgy are now recovering aspects of a larger Christian tradition as a
means to refocus on spirituality in a culture that is increasingly
Originating in the fourth century of the church, the season of Lent spans 40 weekdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and climaxing during Holy Week with Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday), Good Friday, and concluding Saturday before Easter.
Lent was the time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, a
time of concentrated study and prayer before their baptism at the Easter
Vigil, the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord early on Easter
But since these new members were to be received into a
living community of Faith, the entire community was called to
Also, this was the time when those who had been separated from the Church would prepare to rejoin the community.
Lent is marked by a time of prayer and preparation to celebrate Easter.
Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that
occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent, and
are referred to as the Sundays in Lent.
The number 40 is
connected with many biblical events, but especially with the forty days
Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for His ministry by facing the
temptations that could lead him to abandon his mission and calling.
Christians today use this period of time for introspection, self
examination, and repentance.
This season of the year is equal only to the Season of Advent
in importance in the Christian year, and is part of the second major
grouping of Christian festivals and sacred time that includes Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost.
has traditionally been marked by penitential prayer, fasting, and
almsgiving. Some churches today still observe a rigid schedule of
fasting on certain days during Lent, especially the giving up of meat,
alcohol, sweets, and other types of food.
Other traditions do not
place as great an emphasis on fasting, but focus on charitable deeds,
especially helping those in physical need with food and clothing, or
simply the giving of money to charities.
Most Christian churches
that observe Lent at all focus on it as a time of prayer, especially
penance, repenting for failures and sin as a way to focus on the need
for God’s grace. It is really a preparation to celebrate God’s marvelous
redemption at Easter, and the resurrected life that we live, and hope
for, as Christians.
Mardi Gras or Carnival
which comes from a Latin phrase meaning "removal of meat," is the three
day period preceding the beginning of Lent, the Sunday, Monday, and
Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of the
Lenten Season (some traditions count Carnival as the entire period of
time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday).
The three days before
Ash Wednesday are also known as Shrovetide ("shrove" is an Old English
word meaning "to repent"). The Tuesday just before Ash Wednesday is
called Shrove Tuesday, or is more popularly known by the French term
Mardi Gras, meaning "Fat Tuesday," contrasting to the fasting during
Lent. The entire three day period has now come to be known in many areas
as Mardi Gras.
Carnival or Mardi Gras is usually a period of
celebration, originally a festival before the fasting during the season
of Lent. Now it is celebrated in many places with parades, costumes,
dancing, and music. Many Christians’ discomfort with Lent originates
with a distaste for Mardi Gras.
In some cultures, especially the
Portuguese culture of Brazil, the French culture of Louisiana, and some
of the Caribbean cultures such as Trinidad, it has tended to take on the
excesses of wild and drunken revelry.
There has been some
attempt in recent years to change this aspect of the season, such as
using Brazilian Carnival parades to focus on national and cultural
history. Many churches now observe Mardi Gras with a church pancake
breakfast or other church meal, eating together as a community before
the symbolic fasting of Lent begins.
Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, is the first day
of the Season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of
placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads as a sign of humility
before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings
into the world.
It not only prefigures the mourning at the death
of Jesus, but also places the worshipper in a position to realize the
consequences of sin. (See Reflections on Ash Wednesday).
Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives if we are to be fully Christian.
the early church, ashes were not offered to everyone but were only used
to mark the forehead of worshippers who had made public confession of
sin and sought to be restored to the fellowship of the community at the
However, over the years others began to show
their humility and identification with the penitents by asking that
they, too, be marked as sinners. Finally, the imposition of ashes was
extended to the whole congregation in services similar to those that are
now observed in many Christian churches on Ash Wednesday. Ashes became
symbolic of that attitude of penitence reflected in the Lord’s prayer:
“forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”
(Luke 11:4, NRSV).
Colors and Symbols of Lent
The color used in the sanctuary for most of Lent is purple, red violet, or dark violet (see Colors of the Church Year).
These colors symbolize both the pain and suffering leading up to the
crucifixion of Jesus as well as the suffering of humanity and the world
But purple is also the color of royalty, and so
anticipates through the suffering and death of Jesus the coming
resurrection and hope of newness that will be celebrated in the
Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Some churches use grey for Ash
Wednesday or for the entire season of Lent, or for special days of
fasting and prayer. Gray is the color of ashes, and therefore a biblical
symbol of mourning and repentance. The decorations for the sanctuary
during Lent should reflect this mood of penitence and reflection.
churches avoid the use of any flowers in the sanctuary during Lent,
using various dried arrangements. This can be especially effective if a
is used for Easter. Other churches use arrangements of rocks or symbols
associated with the Gospel readings for the six Sundays in Lent.
Some church traditions change the sanctuary colors to red for Maundy Thursday,
a symbol of the disciples and through them the community of the church.
Since Eucharist or communion is often observed on Maundy Thursday in
the context of Passover, the emphasis is on the gathered community in
the presence of Jesus the Christ.
Traditionally, the sanctuary colors of Good Friday
and Holy Saturday are black, the only days of the Church Year that
black is used. It symbolizes the darkness brought into the world by sin.
It also symbolizes death, not only the death of Jesus but the death of
the whole world under the burden of sin.
In this sense, it also
represents the hopelessness and the endings that come as human beings
try to make their own way in the world without God (see The Days of Holy Week). Black is always replaced by white before sunrise of Easter Sunday.
The Journey of Lent
are many ways for a congregation to mark the journey of Lent. One of
the most effective ways that can be expanded in many variations is to
use a rough wooden cross as a focal point for the season. The type of
cross and how it is constructed will depend on exactly how it will be
The cross is usually erected in the Sanctuary on Ash
Wednesday as a visible symbol of the beginning of Lent. It is usually
draped in black on Good Friday. The same cross can also become a part
of the congregation's Easter celebration as it is then draped in white
or gold, or covered with flowers (see The Flowering Cross).
effective way to make use of the cross is to use it as a Prayer Cross
during Lent. A hammer, square nails, and small pieces of paper are
made available near the cross. At a designated time of prayer during
the Sundays in Lent, people are invited to write their prayer requests
on the paper, and then nail them to the cross.
The quiet time of
prayer with only the sounds of the hammer striking the nails can be a
moving time for reflection on the meaning of Lent, and a powerful call
to prayer. The prayer requests can be removed and burned as part of a Tenebrae or Stations of the Cross service during Holy Week to symbolize releasing the needs to God.
churches have a special time of prayer or meditation one night of each
week during Lent. Often Catholic and high church traditions pray the
Stations of the Cross (see The Fourteen Stations of the Cross). Some Protestant churches have a special series of Bible studies followed by a time of meditation and prayer.
in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, the prayer time is followed
by a simple meal of soup and bread to symbolize the penitence of the
Reflections on Lent
We enjoy celebrating Palm Sunday.
The children get to make paper palm branches and for many is one of
the few times they get to take an active role in "big church." We wave
the palm branches and celebrate. And we all love Easter Sunday! It is a
happy time, with flowers, new clothes, and the expectation of Spring in
But it is too easy and promotes too cheap a grace to
focus only on the high points of Palm Sunday and Easter without walking
with Jesus through the darkness of Good Friday, a journey that begins on
Lent is a way to place ourselves before God
humbled, bringing in our hands no price whereby we can ourselves
purchase our salvation. It is a way to confess our total inadequacy
before God, to strip ourselves bare of all pretense to righteousness, to
come before God in dust and ashes. It is a way to empty ourselves of
our false pride, of our rationalizations that prevent us from seeing
ourselves as needy creatures, of our "perfectionist" tendencies that
blind us to the beam in our own eyes.
Through prayer that gives
up self, we seek to open ourselves up before God, and to hear anew the
call "Come unto me!" We seek to recognize and respond afresh to God’s
presence in our lives and in our world. We seek to place our needs, our
fears, our failures, our hopes, our very lives in God’s hands, again.
we seek by abandoning ourselves in Jesus’ death to recognize again who
God is, to allow His transforming grace to work in us once more, and to
come to worship Him on Easter Sunday with a fresh victory and hope that
goes beyond the new clothes, the Spring flowers, the happy music.
it begins in ashes. And it journeys though darkness. It is a spiritual
pilgrimage that I am convinced we must make one way or the other for
genuine spiritual renewal to come. I have heard the passage in 2
Chronicles 7:14 quoted a lot: ". . .if my people who are called by my
name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their
wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin
and heal their land."
This usually is quoted in the context of
wanting revival or renewal in the church, and the prayer is interpreted
as intercessory prayer for others. But a careful reading of the passage
will reveal that the prayer that is called for here is not intercessory
prayer for others; it is penitential prayer for the faith community, for
us. It is not to call for others to repent; it is a call for us, God’s
people, to repent. It is our land that needs healed, it is our wicked
ways from which we need to turn, we are the ones who need to seek God’s
Perhaps during the Lenten season we should stop praying for
others as if we were virtuous enough to do so. Perhaps we should take
off our righteous robes just long enough during this 40 days to put
ashes on our own heads, to come before God with a new humility that is
willing to confess, "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner."
should be willing to prostrate ourselves before God and plead, "Lord,
in my hand no price I bring; simply to the cross I cling." That might
put us in a position to hear God in ways that we have not heard Him in a
long time. And it may be the beginning of a healing for which we have
O Lord, begin with me. Here. Now.