What is Lent?
Judaism has Yom Kippur. Islam has Ramadan. For Christianity, the primary season of penitential practice is Lent. Important elements of the season are prayer, penance, almsgiving and self-denial.
There are many ways to live out these practices: opting out of participating in personal vices, giving energy and resources to charitable works, taking prayer more seriously, and so on.
Many people choose to refrain from chocolate or alcohol or social media. Areas that I know will offer a particular spiritual challenge to me should help determine what I do or don’t do. The choices should be helps to foster self-control and simplicity.
The choice of external practice is unique to each of us. I shouldn’t refrain from chocolate because someone else is doing it. Rather, my external choice should be a reflection of my spiritual need and a way of increasing solidarity with the needs of others.
As we know, the Season of Lent runs from Ash Wednesday to the Sacred Triduum before Easter Sunday. It is forty days long, with several Sundays as feast days. Forty is a significant biblical number, in both Old and New Testaments. However, the most significant use of forty in this particular situation is the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he embarked on his public ministry.
The name Lent is a shortened form of the Old English word len(c)ten, meaning spring season. The Oxford English Dictionary also suggests that there may be a connection with the lengthening of the days at this time of the year.
Lent likely has been observed since apostolic times, though the practice was not formalized until the First Council of Nicaea in 325. It was a time of preparation of candidates for baptism and a time of penance for sinners. In the early centuries fasting rules were strict, as they still are in Eastern churches. In the West these fasting rules have gradually been relaxed.
A few years ago I came across a prayer in the Scarboro Foreign Mission magazine: A Lenten Litany on Fasting and Feasting. It is often used at Ash Wednesday prayer services. It is attributed to William Arthur Ward, an American author, teacher and pastor. It has lines such as, “Fast from discontent; Feast on gratitude.” It is readily available online and is challenging us to a positive approach to the Season of Lent. Can we resolve to see Lent as a positive season? We are well-aware of the ways in which this season challenges us.