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What is Lent?

Lent is is an Anglo-Saxon word for Spring – and connects to the word “lengthen”. In the Northern Hemisphere, where the Church Year originates, days are lengthening; it is Spring time.

Lent is a period of intense preparation for the Easter Season. Lent was the season during which people had their final preparation to be baptised at Easter. Sinners, who had been excluded from the church, were reconciled and restored to the community. It was a period of fasting (especially from meat). Hence, in many languages the title of Lent refers to fasting.

Lent is forty days long, not counting the Sundays, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day. Forty is a number we regularly meet in the Bible: the number of days Moses spent on Sinai (Exodus 24:18), the days of Elijah walking to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8), the days of rain during the flood (Genesis 7:4); the years the Hebrew people wandered in the desert (Numbers 14:33); the days Jonah told the city of Nineveh they had to repent or be destroyed (Jonah 3:4), the number of days Jesus fasted in the desert after his baptism (Matthew 4:1–2, Mark 1:12–13, Luke 4:1–2). Forty days is also approximately a tenth of the year. Giving a tenth (a “tithe”) back to God is a concept found in many places in the Bible. Lent then becomes a tithe of our year.

During Lent contemporary Christians generally intensify their spiritual life, like a retreat in daily life. Many read the Bible more, pray and meditate more, give up something enjoyable, attend a study group, attend more (weekday) services at church, and give more generously to worthy causes. Some continue to use the time to prepare for baptism and/or confirmation.

The church does not use Halleluia/Alleluia in worship and references to this word is often referred to as the “H Word” or the “A Word” in Lent, to avoid pronouncing it. “Glory to God in the highest…” is also not used in Lent. This fasting from Halleluia/Alleluia and “Glory to God in the highest…” gives their reintroduction and heavy use during the Easter Season extra potency.

Flowers are often not used in church during Lent.

The colour for Lent is purple/violet. Traditionally it has penitential connotations. It is also the church’s preparing colour.

Lent in the Southern Hemisphere

Lent in this (southern) hemisphere heralds the autumn. Nature pares down to her essentials. She carries with her the seeds of the future. She concentrates her energies on the one thing necessary that life may be renewed when the globe turns once more towards the sun. Gardeners do their essential tidying and preparation. We plant our bulbs, hoping for new life in the future.

We, the church, also pare down in Lent. Lent focuses on the essentials: the new life in the death and resurrection of Jesus and our participation in this through our faith and baptism. After the busyness of the summer there is a time to learn to pause. We Christians can plant some bulbs together, praying that through our celebration of Lent new life may spring up in our community and throughout the world.

In modern liturgy the penitential flavour is now more concentrated on Ash Wednesday. Creation all around us is beginning to die. Nature seems to echo the ancient words addressed to each person at the imposition of ashes which marks the beginning of Lent: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These forty days, approximately a tenth of the year, are our tithe of the year. Our personal Lenten disciplines, however, are not just another self-improvement course. They are to prepare us for a party, the party of Easter.

In a growing number of communities Lent is once again what it was in the early church, a special time of preparation for Easter baptisms or for a personal affirmation of one’s baptism. As worshippers support these candidates, parents, sponsors, and companions, they are vividly reminded of their own baptism and encouraged to renew their baptismal commitment.

The stark simplicity of Lenten worship can provide a striking contrast with the joyful celebration of Easter. Flowers might be absent from church, organ music restrained. Removing banners and pictures and veiling rich metalwork could enhance the atmosphere (though to obscure the cross in Lent seems to misunderstand the tradition, it may be better that a wooden cross replaces an expensive one). Traditionally, “Glory to God in the highest” is not used in Lent. Texts and hymns are carefully selected to avoid the use of the word “Alleluia” which is not used during Lent but will greet the resurrection on Easter Day.
To grow closer to Christ we need to take time to reflect and pray. The danger of Lent is that it tends to be the church’s busiest time as we add extra services and study on top of our full parish programme. In the gospel of the first Sunday of Lent we go with Jesus into his forty days in the desert. Our times at church and the Lenten programmes can be oases in the desert, encouraging us on to that intimacy with God and a realistic examination of ourselves which the desert promises.