February is almost gone and with its departure will begin the Christian season of Lent. It starts this week on March 1 which is called Ash Wednesday. That is the first day of Lent, the official start of 40 days of fasting and prayer, piety and solemnity, devoting oneself to contemplation, meditation, and reflection on one's own spiritual condition. This practice dates back to the days of the Early Church where it was customary to observe a time of preparation for those who were going to be baptized on Easter Sunday morning. The time of preparation allowed the new converts to Christianity to consider what they were going to do because baptism was a serious undertaking. In a world where Christianity was often outlawed, then becoming a Christian was literally a life or death matter.
Lent was also a time when those who had been separated from the Christian Community or persons who had committed serious sins could be reconciled and restored to the Church by penitence and forgiveness. The entire congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our baptismal faith.
Modern day Christians are invited to consider the Lenten Season to be a time of self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and doing good deeds for others. People are encouraged to read and meditate on God's Word and to take the time to be more devoted to regular and faithful attendance to worship services.
The beginning of Lent is similar to the beginning of a New Year. It gives people a chance to make a new start. If people had made resolutions at the end of the last year and have already forgotten them or broken them, then Lent provides a chance to begin again.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent and a church service is often held during which worshipers come forward to receive the mark of ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their repentance. Ashes has been a sign of repentance that dates back to ancient Israel. When persons wanted God to know their sincerity in obedience to God's commands, they would sit in ashes and put on clothes made of sackcloth and cover themselves with the ashes. Getting down to the lowest level of society in this way provided a visual that the person repenting was sincere. Today, we receive only a smudge of ash on our foreheads but that small mark is representative of our sincerity that we want to have as we begin the season of Lent.
Then, there are six Sundays in Lent where we hear the ancient stories from Israel's history about the fall of humans, the lives of the patriarchs, and the acts of the prophets in addition to the ministry of Jesus as he made his way toward Jerusalem where he would give up his life for humanity. Those six weeks help to prepare us for what we will encounter during Holy Week when we recall Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, his Last Supper with his disciples, and his death on the cross. Silence falls on Saturday as we await Jesus' resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.
We recall anew these stories year after year to remind us of God's mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ for all people. It is important to our experience as Christians to be engaged and involved in our faith community during the Lenten Season in order to fully appreciate the story of Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead. We are all encouraged and urged to be present in worship for each Sunday in Lent as we hear the stories and reflect upon their meaning for our own lives.
Will you devote yourself to practices of faith and love for the weeks of Lent? Will you do deeds of mercy for others and acts of piety for your own spiritual fulfillment? Will you consider fasting from a food or practice that you find dear for the season of Lent so as to connection with Jesus' story of his own temptation and testing? If you will consider making this a "Holy Lent" through these Christian practices, then your Easter Celebration may be more meaningful this year than in years past because you set your mind on things above for a season in order to be more fully human at its end.