‘What are you giving up for Lent’? I first remember being asked by a friend at school, and I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about. My parents didn’t know about Lent either – except that it wasn’t in the Bible, so we didn’t need to bother with it. It was a Catholic thing. (This was in Minnesota – I’d never heard of Anglicans either).
My parents were right, Lent isn’t in the Bible – but it does have a long Christian heritage. (The Trinity isn’t in the Bible either, which reminds us that ‘being in the Bible’ is not the answer to every theological question.)
Every religion has traditions, and Christianity is no exception. Some are wonderful reminders of important aspects of our faith, bringing life and renewal year after year. Others end up as empty relics; no one remembers what they mean or how they started, yet on and on they go, world without end, Amen. Which one is Lent? Perhaps a bit of both!
Etymologically, the word Lent simply means ‘Spring’ – as in the season (from the Anglo-Saxon Lencten). So how did it become a Christian tradition? In the early days of Christianity, the gospel spread like wildfire; people from pagan backgrounds came in droves, wanting to be baptised. But with little understanding of Christian faith, or a transformed life of discipleship, they needed teaching and grounding. The tradition of a 40-hour fast took hold for preparation and ‘catechism’ (testing), first mentioned by Irenaeus (c. AD130-200). Biblically, the number 40 represented times of trial, perseverance, and preparation for a new phase of life. (Think Noah’s flood, Israel’s wanderings, Jesus in the wilderness).
Baptisms were always on a Sunday (i.e. ‘resurrection day’). But as persecution broke out against Christians, baptisms became dangerous, and tended towards once per year – on Easter of course. But there was no Easter! The date of Jesus’ resurrection was unknown. Passover (Jesus’ death) was in Spring, so Christians conveniently ‘claimed’ the Pagan festival of Eostre as their own – thus Easter became Resurrection Day. 40 hours gradually changed to 40 days, as the whole church began to fast and pray alongside the new converts.
Today the stringent 40-day fast is barely preserved as ‘giving something up for Lent’. Giving up chocolate may be a fun challenge – but unless accompanied by a heart of preparation for a ‘new life’ of following Jesus – is it relic, or renewal?