For the forty days (excluding Sundays... more on that later) prior to Easter, Christians observe the season of Lent. This is a time of introspection, repentance and preparation for Easter.
Its earliest observance was tied to the baptism of new believers into the community of faith. That's right. In some of the earliest years of the church, you did not make a profession of faith and instantly become part of the church. Instead, you were required to go through intense moral examination by the community as well as a period of repenting and fasting. Then, on Easter Sunday, you would be baptized and fully enter into the community of faith.
Our modern expression has expanded from those who are becoming part of the community to the church as a whole. It all begins with an odd ceremony: Ash Wednesday. During this special worship service, worshippers come forward and receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their forehead.
The symbol of ashes is quite profound. They have been used throughout time to symbolize repentance and mourning. It is this unique combination of meaning that brings clarity to the idea of repentance. True repentance has at its root a mourning over the profound disconnection created by sin, and when worn on the forehead as a sign of repentance, as we do on Ash Wednesday, the ash is a sign to others around us that we are taking time to mourn the loss created by sin and reconnect with God.
That is the focus of lent. We repent. We reconnect with God. This repentance and reconnection is most often practiced by fasting from something significant and spending that time in prayer. This spiritual practice is one that can feel very alien to a culture that is not known for its self-control. However, that means that it can be a particularly powerful practice as we seek to minimize the indulgence we usually give to our every whim, hunger, and desire and turn our eyes from self to God.
As we fast during the week we look forward to Sundays. Each Sunday in Lent is to be thought of as a mini-easter and most who fast, lift the fast during this time. Though we are to keep the somber, reflective mood of this season, we know that we do not live in a pre-Easter world anymore. It is because of this wonderful reality that we temper the reverence of this season with joy and anticipation each Sunday before Easter.
I hope that this Lent is one that fills your world with the recognition of sin, the blessing of forgiveness and a reconnection with God.
If you would like more information on lent, check out these other articles: