Lent—or Lententide—extends over a 46-day period beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on the eve of Easter. The word Lent probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon lencten, meaning spring, and the German Lenz meaning the time when the days lengthen.
The six Sundays in Lent are not actually a part of Lent, so the Lenten season itself is 40 days. Sundays, being weekly commemoration of the first Easter, have always been excluded from this fast season. The date of Ash Wednesday is determined by the date of Easter.
The day before Ash Wednesday, called Shrove Tuesday (from shrift or confession) was a time for carnivals in the Middle Ages. Feasting took place: to have a last fling before the fast started and also to use up such food as was prohibited during Lent.
The name “Ash Wednesday” comes from the medieval custom—continued in the Roman Catholic Church—of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents on this day. Originally these penitents appear to have been persons under church discipline who wished to be reconciled to the church before Easter. The ashes were a public acknowledgement of their penance.
Later the ceremony of the reconciliation of penitents fell into disuse and the practice arose of marking the heads of all the faithful with an ashen cross as a visible symbol of the penitential season which began on this day. Thus is became a general custom no longer confined to those under suspension or excommunication.
Lent developed from two sources. The first was a period of fasting which preceded Easter in the early church. The second was the period of preparation prescribed for candidates for baptism. Since the early church was an “underground movement”, candidates were carefully screened and there was a long period of preparation.
A fasting period of 40 days was required—the length of which was suggested by our Lord’s fasting on the way to the Mount of God. Eventually this period of preparation for baptism evolved into a general period of preparation for Easter to be observed by all Christians. The Lenten season, then, is a period to prepare for keeping Easter worthily.
This article was originally published in the February 1970 issue of Methodist Message.
Joyce Foster was the Acting Editor of Methodist Message in 1970.
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