Forty Days and Forty Nights
Throughout the Bible, the number 40 is associated with a time of testing or repentance (e.g., 40 days and nights of the rains falling at the Flood, 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness to the Promised Land, 40 days of Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness, 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, et al.). Therefore, the Church has adopted a Lenten season of 40 days prior to Easter. Incidentally, the word “Lenten” comes from an Old English word lencten which means “to lengthen,” as in, the day light hours are lengthening.
Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. (Ash Wednesday is March 6 this year.) It is “Ash” Wednesday because of the Church’s custom to put the mark of the cross on the head of the worshipers with ashes. These ashes are a reminder that we are going to die one day. As the ashes are applied, the pastor proclaims to each person: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” a paraphrase of Genesis 3:19.
This reminder is awkward and uncomfortable. But sin and death ought to make us feel awkward and uncomfortable. Such a grave reminder of our sinfulness and mortality is a proper way to begin the Lenten season. These forty days are a time of penitence and reflection. While the whole life of a Christian is to be one of repentance, the Lenten season especially focuses us on our need for repentance.
A “Fast” Season
Fasting is a practice that has long been observed by God’s people, going well back into Old Testament times. In fact, our Lord seems to expect that we will do it. In Matthew 6:16, he states, “When you fast…”, not “IF you fast.”
Fasting goes hand in hand with repentance (Psalm 35:13; Jonah 3:7-9) and with prayer (Esther 4:15,16). Fasting is a ceremony by which we express our repentance in a physical manner. It is depriving ourselves of something physical to focus on the spiritual. It is praying with the body.
Fasting also trains our bodies and souls. We discipline our flesh to teach it that it is not to control us. We deny ourselves in those parts of our lives in which we are most prone to temptation. When you intentionally deprive your soul of what it wants, it has to get by without. Why is that important? Your desires, uncontrolled, give in to temptation. They lead you into sin. Uncontrolled desires make idols of what your soul wants: desiring excess food is gluttony; desiring extravagant clothing or cars or décor is greed; desiring a man or woman outside of marriage is adultery. Desiring anything outside of God’s order makes you an idolater.
Most commonly, fasting involves denying oneself at mealtime. It does not necessarily mean total abstention from food. Rather, meals are scaled back. Instead of eating three full meals a day, one eats the equivalent of about 1 ½ meals. The time that one would have spent eating is then devoted to prayer and meditation. The money that one saves can be given to the poor or to a charity. You could also fast in a way that addresses a temptation or weakness that is particular to you. Think about what tempts you, and limit your exposure. If shopping is your weakness, no shopping sprees or comfort purchases during Lent. Too much time wasted on the internet, or visiting sites you shouldn’t be? Only use it at work or when someone else is with you. If you need encouragement, counsel, or more ideas talk with your pastor.Fasting from these areas of weakness will heighten your sensitivity to them. It allows you to train yourself to put these cravings to death. And it enables you to enjoy the festival times all the more.
you choose to observe this discipline, do not feel that you have to go all
out. Perhaps you will limit your fasting
to just Wednesdays and Fridays, as Christians traditionally did throughout the
year. Or instead of scaling all the way
back to 1 ½ meals, perhaps you will simply omit one of the meals, as well as
snacking in between. In any case, fasting
is not something we do to seek reward from our Lord. It is a way that we can more intently focus
on our Lord, to meditate, and to pray.
Note: Sundays are never fast days, so go ahead and enjoy the good gifts of creation to their fullest on these days! Also, expectant or nursing mothers, children, and the ill are never expected to fast from food, but to provide the nourishment their bodies need.
A Season of Passion
During the Lenten season, the Christian Church generally increases the opportunities Christians have to pray and to hear the word. On the Wednesday evenings (7:00 PM) throughout Lent following Ash Wednesday, Good Shepherd offers Lenten Vespers (an evening prayer service, from the Latin vespera, meaning “evening”). The focus of Lenten Vespers is the Passion of our Lord. The word Passion is derived from the Latin word passio which means “suffering.” The Lord’s passion (zeal) to redeem us drove him to his Passion (suffering) for us. At each Vespers, we will hear a portion of our Savior’s Passion, beginning with the Last Supper and concluding with the death and burial of our Lord. This year (2021), we will read through the Passion of our Lord from the Gospel according to St. Mark. (In other years, the Passion readings are from the Gospels according to St. Matthew or St. Luke.)
It should also be noted that, on Good Friday, the Passion of our Lord is read in its entirety from the Gospel according to St. John.
If you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, you will get more than forty days. The reason is that the Sundays in Lent are not counted. They are Sundays in Lent, not Sundays of Lent. The focus on these Sundays continues to be the words and works of Jesus, our Messiah, who battles and conquers sin, death, and Satan for us. While the Lent is a penitential season, the Sundays in Lent are feast days and serve as “little Easters” even within the season of Lent.
Farewell to Alleluia
While Sundays are little Easters, we do not forget that we are in Lent. To reflect the penitential nature of the season, we mute the joy and praise in our Divine Services. This is noticed mainly by the omission of the Gloria in Excelsis (Glory to God in the Highest) and the Alleluias. We also remove the flowers from the altar during Lent. As we continue to make our way closer to Holy Week, our fast intensifies. We will notice that organ music is restricted to the support of congregational singing. The Gloria Patri (Glory be to the Father) is removed from the Psalms. Paintings, statues, and icons are either removed or veiled. The season becomes more somber as we get closer to the cross, until finally on Good Friday, the altar has been completely stripped.
These omissions are a fast for our eyes and ears. Perhaps it will seem awkward to be missing these things, but that is the point. Lent is a penitential season; therefore, our celebration is muted. But it all heightens the joy and festivity of Easter Sunday when all of the beauty, the music, and the ceremonies are returned to the Church. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the Alleluia’s break forth in abundance as we join in worship to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and rejoice in the forgiveness and salvation he brings us.
A Prayerful and Penitential Lent
One more practice you may want to consider this Lenten season is making use of Private Confession and Absolution. This is a rite in which the penitent can hear in a very personal manner the voice of Jesus declaring through his minister, “I forgive you.” The order of Private Confession and Absolution has been made available at the bulletin board so that you can be familiar with it before you come to your pastor. The pastor would be pleased to walk through the rite with you to help you understand the how’s and the why’s. Confession teaches us to recognize our sins, and the Absolution allows us to hear Christ proclaim his forgiveness for those sins that grieve us and torment us. You may contact the pastor to schedule Private Confession and Absolution.
May God bless you this Lenten season as you prepare to celebrate the joys of Easter.