The season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, so I took the opportunity to ask our new rector, Terrell Glenn, a few questions about the significance of the season.
Daniele Berman: What is Lent, exactly?
Terrell Glenn: Lent is the period of forty days that comes before Easter in the Christian calendar. (The Sundays aren’t counted as they have always been considered “little Easters.”) This year, Lent begins on February 13.
DB: What is the point of Lent?
TG: For many believers, Lent is a season of self-examination, fasting, and repentance in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Of course, followers of Christ should examine their lives and repent of sin on a daily basis. But Lent offers a special time when our self-examination is a bit more rigorous than usual. The intent is that the growth we experience during this season would continue for the rest of our lives and not disappear when Easter arrives.
DB: So Lent is probably more than giving up chocolate or Downton Abbey or Facebook for forty days?
TG: Right. It might be a good place to start, however, by thinking of Lent as a time to take on a new spiritual discipline like reading, joining a small group, serving at a local mission, or getting up earlier for prayer and Bible study. For most people, adding something in life requires getting rid of something else. And that’s where real life evaluation can begin.
DB: What’s with forty days? Why not twelve, like the twelve days of Christmas?
TG: The number forty is a very significant Biblical number. The flood lasted forty days and nights. The Hebrews spent forty years in the wilderness. And most significantly for Christians, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the wilderness after He was baptized and before He began His public ministry.
DB: So why do we call the season “Lent” and not “Forty?”
TG: The word comes from the Old English word meaning “to lengthen.” Lent is observed on the cusp of spring when the days begin to lengthen.
TG: Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for the Western Christian Church. Marking the foreheads of worshippers with ashes is a Biblical, ancient, and symbolic demonstration of mortality and penitence. Everyone who comes forward to receive ashes hears words reminiscent of God’s words to Adam after the Fall: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Church history documents the practice of associating the wearing of ashes with repentance from the earliest days in the writings of people such as Tertullian, who lived in the late second and early third century A.D. He wrote that those who repented of their sin should “live without joy in the roughness of sackcloth and the squalor of ashes.” The practice wasn’t original to the early church, however, and there is ample Biblical precedence for it. For example, when Jonah preached to Nineveh, the inhabitants manifested their depth of sorrow for their sin by wearing sackcloth and ashes.
DB: If I come to one of the services next Wednesday, will I be required to have ashes put on my head?
TG: Certainly not. There is an old saying that certainly applies here: “All may. Some should. None must.”
DB: Any final thoughts about the significance of the season?
TG: Yes. Lent is obviously what you make of it. In and of itself, it means nothing. It has seen abuses in certain periods of Church history that make it suspect in some people’s eyes. And yet there is much to be gained from taking time out to consider the condition of our hearts, the way we spend our time and money, and the quality of our relationships. In order to dedicate our lives to God, we need to step back and get a handle on precisely who it is we are dedicating. Lent offers a splendid opportunity for that.