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Lent — What is that?

What do we mean by the term Lent“?   First of all, it does not have anything to do with borrowing or lending.  Since at least Medieval times, the church (meaning all denominations and traditions) has had a church calendar — worship topics and foci are scheduled in a way that creates a rhythm to the year, just as the school year does for students.  Before regular people were educated, the church year was a vehicle for teaching the story of Jesus’ life to people who didn’t have access to the written word.  The details of what parts of the church year any denomination or any church at any point in history celebrates are complicated and historically fraught with details and disagreements.  There is a seasonality to the church year, just as school and the weather have seasons.  Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have really complicated calendars with Saints’ days to celebrate particular saints, as well as seasons related to our reconstruction of the life of Jesus.  Protestants generally dumped the idea of saints, but kept the seasons.  But which seasons?  While the world outside the church recognizes the names of Christmas and Easter (at least here in the U.S., where they have become commercial, secular events in addition to whatever religious meanings they may have), there are a bunch of seasons that some churches celebrate and others don’t.  Some churches don’t even celebrate Christmas and Easter!  It’s complicated – but don’t worry, there isn’t a test at the end!  We follow a tradition of the church year beginning with Advent, when we prepare for the symbolic birth of Jesus.  This is followed by Christmas, the birth of Jesus; Epiphany, the period after the birth and focused on introducing the child Jesus; then a bit of space before we have Ash Wednesday, Lent and Easter.

Ash Wednesday—

 is a day that is intended for quiet contemplation and preparation for the time of Lent, which itself is a preparation for Easter.   Ash Wednesday is the day that you see people walking around town with a cross made of ashes on their foreheads — it’s not that they forgot to wash, it is a sign that many churches use to mark the time that we begin a serious time of reflection in preparation for Easter, which is the holiest and most joyous time of the church year.


Some protestant churches don’t pay any attention to the idea of Lent.  Traditionally among UCC churches and the churches we grew out of, there were often Wednesday night study and prayer services in addition to Sunday worship to allow people time to really think about their faith and their relationship with God.  You may remember peoplehearing about kids “giving up chocolate (coffee, movies, cigarettes, etc) for Lent.”  That was a tradition of austerity in preparation for the solemnities leading up to Easter.  In our church, Lent is a time of prayer and reflection rather than austerity.  We usually have some kind of Bible study or book study and some special dinners or other activities to pull us together and meditate on our faith.  We don’t really “give things up for Lent” – instead we dig deeper into what all this means to us.  And it means different things to different people — we have lots of different ways of being Christian in our community, including ways of being pretty agnostic!!

When we get a little further along with Lent we’ll talk about the rest of the Easter Season:  Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Easter Season, and Pentecost.  Don’t worry — as I said, there is no quiz.  You can be a questioning person or sceptical Christian or committed Christian without any attention to the church year and seasons.  (Whew!!)

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