Saturday, March 12, 2011

A History of Lent


Written by: Brian Austin

For me, Lent has always been more of a puzzle than a practice. Forty days of fasting sounded like a long time. A lover of good food who has always associated fasting with eating nothing, I had selfish reasons for not looking closer. I found it baffling as well, that the 40 days actually add up to 46. Is my math that bad, or is it someone else’s error?

The word Lent itself is derived from the Anglo-Saxon words lencten, meaning "Spring," and lenctentid, which literally means "Springtide," or “March.”

As early as 203 AD, confusion existed over how one should prepare for Easter. In a translation from Greek to Latin, a 40 hour fast came to be understood as a 40 day fast, a significant change that became firmly established at the council of Nicea in 325 AD.

This preparation time carries remnants of the Jewish celebration of the Passover – fittingly enough, for Jesus was crucified during Passover as “The Lamb of God.” The language has changed from the “unleavened bread” and “bitter herbs” of the Passover meal, yet a surprising number of parallels exist. Shrove Tuesday (Feast or Fat Tuesday March 8, 2011) is celebrated much like the preparation for Passover week, eating everything that will be abstained from in coming days. From that point on, some type of fast or abstinence is practiced in many Christian traditions. Most of these traditions predate Catholic or Protestant designations, although they are preserved predominantly within the Catholic church.

The 40 day fast at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry seems to be the strongest link to the duration of Lent. But Sundays, celebrated by the early Christian church as “Resurrection Day,” continued to be celebration days even through this somber period. In some traditions Sundays are feast days in the midst of the fast. In others, specific abstinence is still practiced, especially from any red meats. Almost all traditions permit fish.

The fast itself is but a small part of the tradition—perhaps not even the most important part. Confession to God and confession and restitution to others shows up repeatedly in ancient and modern writings about any authentic practice of Lent.

What would it do in my life if, as I anticipate the pivotal point in the Christian calendar each year, I intentionally gave 40+ days to preparing my heart, my mind, and even my body, for an intense focus on the sacrificial death of Christ, followed by the triumph of His resurrection? What would it do in the lives of those around me if for 40+ days I actively searched for ways I could bring healing and reconciliation?

Maybe - just maybe - Lent deserves more than a shrug. Just maybe, the early church and more traditional present day churches have it right in choosing to give up something for these 40+ days, while making an extra effort to focus on the One who made Easter a reason to celebrate and THE pivotal point in history.

For further reading, much of it scholarly but still fascinating, go to:









17 comments:

  1. One of the most wonderful events in our family's history was being set free from the bondage of the Roman Catholic church.

    I feel concerned when I see Lent being discovered in our church.

    The Bible does not tell us to fast, give something up, or mark Lent in any way.

    Donna Kuntz

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  2. Donna,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Lent. I love this forum where we can share ideas, stories, and suggestions.

    Allow me to address you concern with a story from my own life. It's inspired by Paul's example he used this morning that's still 'marinating' in my mind.

    When I was young, I loved all things Barbecued--everything, that is, except steak. For years I avoided it. Then, in my early twenties, I ate a cooked-to-perfection strip loin and loved it. In that moment I realized something profound: my aversion to the meat wasn't the steak's fault, it was the way it was cooked. My grill happy dad is good at a lot of things, but barbecuing steak is not one. He had a way of taking the butcher's juiciest, most succulent cuts and transforming them into charred cardboard. Now, steak is close to the top of my tasty meat list and I've taken a few grilling lessons from people who know.

    So, back to Lent: should we be leery of the season itself (steak) or the abuse and historical misunderstanding of the 40 day period (the cook)?

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  3. Hi Jason,

    I can identify with your steak story because that's been my experience with it too.

    The thing about Lent though is that it's not really a 40 day period. Somebody just made it up.

    If the people who made it up happen to be Roman Catholics it would be wise to be leery though because it is another form of works and bondage. Our own efforts to become closer to God never work. We have to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

    To be fair to the Roman Catholics they really haven't misunderstood Lent at all. Since they thought it up it is really up to them how it should be done. And their attempts to draw closer to God through vain traditions will never work even though they are trying to be spiritual. They don't even understand salvation as a denomination.

    We are called to worship God in spirit and truth and we have not been left wondering what to do. We have the Bible and the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.

    We are becoming like the Roman Catholics if we're going to take a fake period of time and decide that God has called us to a deeper walk during that particular time by giving up things, fasting, etc.

    Christ has called us to liberty from the vain traditions of men.



    Donna

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  4. Hi Donna,

    Let's clear up a couple of misconceptions:

    You state, "If the people who made [Lent] up happen to be Roman Catholics..." Rest assured, the practice of Lent (preparing for Easter) did not originate in Roman Catholicism.

    As Brian outlines in his original blog post, Lent originates in around the 3rd or 4th century. That's long before the Great Schism of 1054 or the 16th century Reformation. It was back when the church was one, unified, whole. It would be unfair to call the church of that time "Roman Catholic" because it wasn't.

    In terms of your concern with practicing spiritual disciplines, I'll do my best to address concerns in the upcoming sermon series. I agree that the disciplines have been abused. But just because they have been charred to a crisp (like a dried out streak) doesn't mean that they're not important in the process of becoming like Jesus.

    Finally, I don't want to fixate on Lent or the disciplines. That misses the point entirely. Life is about Jesus and being transformed into his image and likeness so that others will know and experience Him as the true and living King!

    The disciplines are like tools in a gardener's hands. Imagine a gardener that becomes obsessed with his hoe, shovel, and rake to the point that he forgets to use them to till the soil and plant the seed in his garden. When the sun and rain come nothing grows because the gardener is too busy polishing his/her tools. That's what happens when we fixate on the disciplines themselves instead on the fruit that is being produced from the seed. We don't make the seed grow, that's God's job. But, by using the tools, in conjunction with the Holy Spirit's work, we can create the right environment so that the sun and rain of God penetrates the fertile soil of our lives.

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  5. Hi Jason,

    The practice of Lent absolutely originated with the Roman Catholic church. Google it or look at Brian's references.

    The church very quickly started to have division in the early centuries.

    Before the end of the second century many Christians began to treat Rome with respect and this wasn't weird because Rome was the most important city in the Roman Empire. Paul's letter to the Roman's shows that he too thought highly of the church of Rome.

    Irenaeus, a church leader in Gaul, declared in 175 that every church had to agree with the Church of Rome and also tried to justify the supremacy of bishops by the idea of "Apostolic succession." Peter's role in "Apostolic succession" eventually received great emphasis and still today the Roman Catholic church maintains that he was made the first head of their church by Christ himself.

    They feel that they have always been around and as far as that goes they really have as have true Christians. Throughout history the Roman Catholic persecution of true Christians is well documented and indisputable.

    If we're born again and following the spirit of God we don't need imposed disciplines.

    Why would we need to prepare for Good Friday and Easter? There's nothing mentioned about doing that at all in the Bible.

    I agree with you that life is about being transformed into the image of Christ. I do agree with Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and whatever else we are called to by God. I feel that adding Lent which is man made and not scriptural into that is wrong and a form of bondage.

    Donna

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  6. Thanks again for you comments Donna

    I'm glad we agree on the main thing.

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  7. This has been an intriguing discussion. Donna, you bring a background to it that can probably only come from someone raised in Catholicism.

    When I began to research Lent, I found it interesting how firmly some of the traditions were established early on.

    As a "church imposed discipline," I would be pretty resistent, but in a culture where the Easter Bunny gets more attention than the crucifixion and resurrection, I think there is something valuable in making a personal choice to practice some type of spiritual discipline.

    One of my observations, as a protestant who grew up with a lot of anti-Catholic prejudice, is that there is a lot I can learn if I look carefully at many of the Catholic traditions. I'm not talking about slavish obedience to them, but a deeper understanding and respect.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I just tapped the surface of an understanding of Lent, and a glimpse of the history. If my understanding is right, I personally think there is more value than I have ever given to some of the traditions--if I will intentionally draw closer to God as Easter approaches. If it is just a ritual (look what I'm giving up) then it is more a pride thing and may well be bondage.

    I agree that the Bible always has to out-rank traditions. Jesus Himself confronted that in His ministry. But I think there is still something to gain by understanding the traditions better. Just maybe, there are healthy and helpful things we can learn from those traditions. At least some of them are probably worth implementing, so long as they are not in conflict with the Bible.

    I'll quit nattering there. I'm afraid I'm not expressing myself very well.

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  8. Hi Brian,

    You always express yourself well!

    Definitely having been Roman Catholic has influenced my rejection of Lent and other man made traditions. Actually Easter wasn't celebrated by the early Christians at all. So Lent seems particularly ridiculous to me because it's a man made preparation for a man made feast. I think we would be most right on with sticking to communion to remember Christ's death and resurrection.

    I appreciate you all even though we're not all in agreement.

    Donna

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  9. Church would be boring if we all agreed on everything. :)

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  10. PASSOVER MEAL

    Do you understand the 4th Cup?

    After the supper He took the third cup saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This IS my blood of the NEW and everlasting covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

    A hymn was sung, which is a combination of several psalms called The Great Hillel, and they went out to the Mount of Olives.

    What happened? The Passover ceremony and ritual was not complete. There was no fourth cup. There was no announcement that it was finished. Could it be that Jesus was so upset with what He knew was about to happen that He forgot? Doubtful!

    Not only Jesus, but also the 11 others had participated in the Passover Seder every year of their lives. No, this was done on purpose. The last supper of Jesus was not over.

    On the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples slept while Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done."

    He prayed that three times. Then Jesus was arrested, illegally put on trial by the Sanhedrin, then by Pontius Pilate, sentenced and crucified.

    While on the cross He wept. Jesus, who was in excruciating agony, was so merciful that He prayed for the forgiveness of His executioners. He was offered some wine with a pain killer, myrrh, in it. He refused it.

    "Later, knowing that all was now complete, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled and the kingdom established, Jesus said, 'I am thirsty.'" A man dipped a sponge into sour wine; he placed it on a hyssop branch and lifted it up to Jesus lips.

    He drank. (We recall that it was the hyssop branch which was used to paint lambs blood around the Hebrew's door for the Passover of the angel of death.)

    It was then that Jesus said, "It is finished." He then bowed His head and gave up the spirit to His Father.

    The fourth cup now represented the lamb’s blood of the first Passover, a saving signal to the angel of death.

    The Lamb of God was now sacrificed. The last Passover supper of Jesus Christ was now complete with the fourth cup. It was finished.

    The tie in with the Passover is unmistakable.

    The Lamb of God was sacrifice and death was about to be passed over come Easter day.

    The promise of eternal life for many was about to be fulfilled.

    Christ’s Passover was finished, but His mission was not until he rose from the dead.

    For more information on Jesus New Covenant and how everything ties together -- Passover Meal -> Manna -> Prophecy of the New Covenant -> Bread of Life Meaning -- go to The 4th Cup.com and watch the video! You can also read along while the video is playing.

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  11. What a fascinating conversation y'all are having.

    I think the constant reference to steaks and food are great, I love to cook, in fact my favorite cooking utensil is the bbq!

    God has been so good to me, I have refound my love for God, life, my family, friends, and our church, over the last few months. I am not as eloquent as the rest of you with words, but I did say to Pastor Jason just the other week that I was starting to "put on weight" with all the "meat" we have been getting through the teaching over the last while and I am LOVING IT!! Thank you so much Pastor Paul, and Pastor Jason!!

    In reference to Lent, I have given something up. But for me it has been my way of expressing to God how much I love him! Trust me I know that there is absolutely NOTHING I can or could ever do to gain any favor with God. It is his love, the unfailing love of a Father, and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus the Son, that will one day put me in their presence FOREVER!! God is so Good!

    Lent is not a way trying to gain favor with God, my giving something up is how I am choosing to express what I said with my testimony on stage a couple of weeks ago:

    FREE AT LAST, FREE AT LAST, THANK GOD ALMIGHTY, I AM FREE AT LAST!!

    In Christ,

    Jason McDougall

    (P.S. I have never "blogged" before, I hope I did it right!)

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  12. Everyone,

    Thanks for your great contributions.

    Brian, your post has given all of us some food for thought. Maybe you should consider becoming a regular contributor to the HMC blog.

    Donna, you've done a great job of keeping us all on our toes and reminding us to keep Jesus at the forefront.

    Luke, nice to hear from you. I guess that means our church isn't boring.

    Michael, I suspect you dropped by our blog simply to promote your website. Perhaps you will make some more personal comments next time.

    Jason, thanks for being a living example of Jesus' transforming power.

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  14. That's great Jason!

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