I like to observe many of the holy days of the Christian Church calendar. I guess I grew up doing so and I continue to find that they help me focus on the life of Christ and the life that the believer should be following. The Season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which was just observed by many Christians last week. It typically concludes on Easter Sunday.
Now, since many of you do not pastor in denominations that closely follow the Church calendar, you may not be very familiar with this season, and I thought it might be interesting to examine the history of Lent. I found a well-written piece on this subject by an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Rev. Kenneth W. Collins (B.A., M.Div). So, rather than “reinvent the wheel,” so to speak, I wanted to share an edited portion of his explanation from his web site (which I recognize is only one version). He also includes a section on why he thinks many Christians do not celebrate this Church holiday:
Lent is a forty-day period before Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday. We skip Sundays when we count the forty days, because Sundays commemorate the Resurrection. Lent begins on 10 February 2016 and ends on 26 March 2016, which is the day before Easter. …
Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days. All churches that have a continuous history extending before AD 1500 observe Lent. The ancient church that wrote, collected, canonized, and propagated the New Testament also observed Lent, believing it to be a commandment from the apostles. (See The Apostolic Constitutions, Book V, Section III.) …
Lent began in the apostolic era and was universal in the ancient church. For this reason, Lent is observed by the various Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican denominations, by Roman Catholics, and by Eastern Orthodox Churches.
It is much easier to explain who stopped observing it and why.
In the 16th century, many Calvinists and Anabaptists discarded all Christian holy days, on the theory that they were Roman innovations. That was their best information at the time, but today we know that they were wrong. In the late 19th century, ancient Christian documents came to light. The Didache from the first century, the Apostolic Constitutions from the third century, and the diaries of Egeria of the fourth century; all which give evidence of the Christian calendar and holy days. The Didache and the Apostolic Constitutions were written in the east, which denies it ever recognized the institution of the papacy. Egeria was a Spanish nun, but her writings also describe practices in the east. All of these documents came to light 300 years after it was too late for the groups who had already discarded Christian holy days.
In many cases, Rome was the last place to observe the holy days. For example, the idea of moving All Saints Day to November 1 did not reach Rome until 700 years after it originated in England, and the idea of celebrating Holy Week as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, was quite elaborate in Jerusalem before the early fourth century, but did not spread to Rome until the 11th century. Advent began in medieval Gaul and spread to Rome from there. Lent, on the other hand, appears to have originated in the apostolic age. The Apostolic Constitutions attribute the observance of Lent to an apostolic commandment. We can’t verify that, but we also can’t disprove it.
The Anabaptists gave rise to or influenced the Amish, the Mennonites, the Baptists, and the Plymouth Brethren. The Puritans, who were Calvinists, had similar views on worship, which is why they made Christmas illegal in Massachusetts at one time. (Some Mennonites, however, never rejected the Christian holy days.)
In the United States in the 19th century, the established denominations were slow to spread west of the Appalachians, which was the frontier at the time. The area was thinly populated and there were very few seminary-trained clergy. The lay people had been converted at camp meetings without any church background. They were influenced by the groups that had rejected Christian holy days, but frontier conditions were not conducive to structured liturgical worship anyway. They weren’t aware of the Christian holy days, and they didn’t have the equipment, the facilities, the education, the authorization, or the training to conduct liturgical worship. Therefore most of the religious groups that were formed in the United States in the 19th century do not have a custom of observing Lent. This environment had some influence on individual congregations in denominations that have historically observed the Christian holy days—so you will occasionally find a Methodist church that does not observe Lent.
Gradually, the holy days have returned to the churches that had lost them. The restoration quickly began with Easter. Christmas followed in the 19th century, and Advent and Holy Week became widespread among them in the 20th century. Lent is mounting a come-back in the 21st century.
─ Copyright ©1995-2016 by the Rev. Kenneth W. Collins. Reprinted with permission.
Let me be very clear, my colleague. I am not trying to persuade anyone that they should observe Lent. As Rev. Collins himself says on his web site: Do not allow my persuasive writing style to overcome your skepticism: weigh my words, check my facts, and accept only what passes muster. Don’t agree with me without first putting me to the test, which is your duty according to 1 John 4:1-3. I share this information only because I find it interesting.
For those of you who already participate in this annual activity, I believe that — for you — the Lenten Season should be much more than planning for a big crowd and festive weekend. It should also be a time of personal preparation for your heart, your attitude, your message, and your relationship with the risen Christ. The apostle Paul wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:2-5).
As a pastor, I used the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday to call my people to a time of personal examination. Every service, including midweek, had an Easter theme that would draw people along the road to Jerusalem, to the foot of the cross, and into the celebration of the empty tomb.
During the Lenten Season, I would ask our congregation:
- Who among us has someone to forgive?
- Who among us has a blockage that would keep the Holy Spirit from moving freely in his or her life?
- Who among us has allowed his or her relationship with the risen Lord to stagnate?
What if, during this time of preparation, you guided your people to a new plateau of intimacy with Jesus? (Of course, it is nearly impossible to guide another to a place you haven’t been to or experienced yourself.) The celebration of Easter can hold great significance, especially to the new believer. I pray that your Easter activities will be underscored by the Spirit’s power.
“Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).