If you don’t listen carefully, “Lent” sounds like “lint,” but that’s where the similarities grind to an abrupt halt. Those of us who march thoughtfully through the changing landscape of the Christian Year, know that Lent is the 40 day time-block favored by the Western Church between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (excluding Sundays). Its sixth century origins are somewhat obscure, the first indication of the season appearing in a homily by Gregory the Great (590-604 C.E.?).
In English, “Lent” roughly translates as “spring,” and originally was a time of preparation for Baptism. Against the backdrop of the gospel stories of Jesus’ temptations, the penitential season of Lent, in which our clergy wear purple, the color adorning the Chancel accouterment, and the Alleluias are omitted from liturgy, Lent foreshadows the great themes of self-denial, fasting, and deep reflection on what poet Vachel Lindsay once called “our faith tremendous.”
A worship bulletin cover (now lost to history) once distilled Lent for the inquiring mind:
- LENT is actually six and one-half weeks of very violent repentance and very purple passion.
- LENT is watching a Man go to his death and not being able to stop it.
- LENT is not getting off the hook. It is taking sin seriously, taking life seriously, taking everything more seriously than usual.
- LENT is not a very happy time, but it is what you have to go through to get to Easter!
Lent is a gnarly season for us moderns. Whereas its European origins located Lent in a cold, damp climate conducive to gloom and doom, American Christians often struggle to adapt to its somber mood in, let us say, the desert Southwest, where the Spring sun usually shines, the temperature is moderate, if not occasionally unseasonably warm, and the dress code dictates shorts and golf shirts.
In spite of that, deep down we know intuitively that we need Lent, with its sobering confession that God is God, and we are not – and with its serious joy and wistful expectation breathlessly anticipating Easter, God’s “birthstone Sunday,” when we hope for stones to be rolled away, and for New Life to come staggering up into the Light.
Come, mourn with me a wee bit.
—John W. Smith