First Week of Lent: Facts About Lent

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Feb 15, 2010 by Howard Baker | 0 Comments

The history of the observation of a period of fasting, repentance, and preparation prior to the celebration of the resurrection is much older than the history of the celebration of Christmas. In the late 2nd century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote of just such a season.

Tertullian, who failed to mention any celebration of Christmas, wrote of a forty-day period of fasting similar to what we now observe, though even here there seems to be widespread variation on the exact length of the time of preparation.  

There was such a wide variation in tradition, in fact, that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) expressly mentioned forty days as the suitable practice for this pre-Easter observance. Unlike Christmas, a Lenten-like period of preparation was so widespread in the early church that the Council felt it necessary to weigh in on the discussion.

From a purely historical perspective, then, Lent predates Christmas as a widely observed church season.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season--40 days before Easter Sunday, not counting Sundays, which are viewed as “mini” Resurrection Days.

The imposition of ashes is seen as a proper external sign of an internal reality.

“Lent” comes from the same root word as “lengthen,” which was chosen as a result of the time of year when days were lengthening.

Seen as a period of repentance echoing the Gospel of Jesus: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Preparation stemmed from the prescribed fast of candidates for baptism, which occurred on Easter.  

40 because of Moses on the mountain (Exodus 24:18), Elijah (I Kings 19:8), and Jesus in the desert (Matt. 4:2).

Penitential season—no alleluias in the liturgy.

Time of more intense spiritual exercises and practices.

The point is to walk the journey to the cross with Jesus. The practices (fasting, confession, study, etc.) help one to die to self and live to Christ (Gal. 2:20).

Historically, a time of common fasting.

A season of open-handed surrender rather than tight-fisted discipline.

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  II Cor. 3:17

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