Hungering for Easter
In mid February we entered the season of Lent. For some of us this smacks of something alien or unpleasant at best. But for others this is the most exhilarating time of the year. May I reintroduce you to the best 48 days of the year?
Forty-eight days? I thought there were only forty days in Lent? That is correct, but not quite. Lent includes forty days for fasting and penitence. But Sundays must not be counted as part of Lent, because every Sunday is to be a day for resurrection celebration, not sadness. And the first day of the forty-eight doesn’t really count either, but it could. Now I think I hear you saying, “I am really confused!” Let me help you.
The day before Lent officially begins is called Shrove Tuesday. The word comes from the word “shriven” – an ancient word meaning, “to be forgiven.” On the Tuesday before Lent began, those who wanted to take spiritual renewal seriously, started the season a day early. As the people of Israel removed all leaven from their houses before Passover, earnest Christians wanted to cleanse their hearts and lives before they even entered the door to the season of Lent. On this day they came to the church to confess their sins, receive absolution, and ask for counsel on how to use the coming days to better strengthen their faith.
The day is often called Pancake Tuesday. Eggs and meat were seen as delicacies which a person might give up during lent as part of fasting during the ensuing forty days. Eating a hearty pancake breakfast on Tuesday was a good way to use up these items before Lent began. (This is also one of the reasons we have Easter eggs. Most of the eggs not eaten over the forty days of Lent ended up being good only for games.)
Ash Wednesday officially begins the Lenten season. The day begins by being marked upon the forehead by the dark ashes of the charred remains of last year’s palm branches. The ashes are applied in the sign of the cross to remind us of the words of our Lord, “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” These ashes also remind us of the darker elements of human life: sin, guilt, grief, and mourning. The ashes remind us that our sins caused the death of our Lord. As the ashes are applied we “repent in sackcloth and ashes” because of our participation in his death.
We are also made aware on this day of our own mortality. At funerals we hear the words, “dust to dust and ashes to ashes.” Those words to help us face the brevity of life and our need to use this time wisely.
Forty Days of Lent
Arriving at Ash Wednesday means we have also entered into the season of Lent, where for the next forty days we enter into a time of spiritual reflection and renewal.
Why forty days? Jesus began his sufferings for us in the wilderness when he fasted for 40 days, and the church wants to share with Him in his sufferings. But there is another reason. New converts were often baptized on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were called upon to fast, pray and prepare themselves for the forty days prior to their baptism. It soon became the practice for the rest of the church to share with the candidates in this time of preparation with a renewal of their own baptismal vows.
Prolonged sadness, however, can be damaging. Continued penitence can make us morbid. To prevent this, Lent is punctuated with six Sundays prior to that seventh and greatest of all the Sundays of the year: Easter Sunday! The six Sundays are to remind us that celebration not sadness is to mark the life of the believer.
The last week of Lent is called Holy Week. The preceding days have been building momentum towards this very moment. On Maundy Thursday we relive those moments when Jesus served us communion, washed our feet, prayed for us, and gave us his best counsel. Why is this day called “Maundy“ Thursday? The word is taken from a Latin word meaning “Commandment”. It was on this night that Jesus reminds us of the central commandment of the Christian life: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”
The next day seems to be such a sad day! That enriching evening with his followers ends up with betrayal, denial, arrest, multiple trials, floggings, and death by crucifixion. A terrible tragedy!
But be careful! It was a good day too! The best of all days. It is rightfully called Good Friday! Some think that the day was first called “God’s Friday” and the accidents of language added an extra vowel. Either way, God did something on that Friday that was good of Him and good for us.
This day brings to clear focus two startling and contradictory realities. We are faced with the horrid villainy of ourselves, and at the very same moment we are faced with the awesome God who demonstrates beyond all contradiction that He loves us enough to die for us. This is a day for solemn joy.
The question has been asked, “between Good Friday and Easter Sunday what was going on?” The easy answer is “He was in the tomb” but a more complex answer may be inferred by the words taken from the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into Hades/Hell”.
The opinions have been mixed about the meaning of these words. Some say he was suffering the consequences of our sins by suffering our damnation. Others believe he was “harrowing hell” demonstrating His lordship over the dark domain of Satan, sin, death and hell. But whatever was going on during that Saturday, the church knows that behind the scenes, God was doing His very best work to bring about the salvation of the world!
It was early on Sunday morning when the unbelievable happened. On that great Resurrection Morning, Jesus was raised from death more than conqueror. He came to his church and said to our troubled hearts, “peace be with you!” The fasting of Lent must cease. The sadness must come to an end. His resurrection is the demonstration that our sins have been forgiven, and our weakened lives may now be strengthened by the power of His resurrection. We have no choice but to enter into joy. The fasting is over. Let us eat and drink and make merry. He is risen indeed!
Think It Through…
Why has the evangelical church tended to shun Lent?
Is it due to our distaste for forms, or our fear of “works”, or our unwillingness to suffer?
Would this be a good time to try a partial fast by saying “no” to something that pampers your life? Saying “no” to yourself might better enable you to say “yes” to God. If you are hesitant to try it, do you know the reason?
For The Small Group Leader…
For the small group, the Lenten season can also be a prime time for renewal. Should your group members covenant together to use these days for the renewal of itself and its reason for existence?
Published in Light and Life, March-April, 2002.