“It was the perfect time of the liturgical year for catechumens to spend a last rigorous preparation before their triumphal reception into the Church during the celebration of Easter. This forty day period first mentioned without much fanfare in the Canons of the Council of Nicaea and therefore probably of long standing, was the season which in English is known as Lent.”
The historical journey of Lent is told in one way through the bells that sound each morning and evening before the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. The Bell is rung thirty three times during Lent. We ring it thirty three times – one ring for each year spent by Jesus amongst us. And, as we enter Holy Week with its impending Tridium of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday we ring the bell thirty nine times. We ring the bell thirty nine times – one ring for each lash of the scourge used to mar and tear Jesus flesh wielded by a Roman soldier in preparation for his crucifixion.
The Church has historically viewed lent as a time of confession and discipline. The popular culture seized on this notion and coined the phrase “giving up something for lent” In the popular mind that meant sacrifice and pain of some sort. It invoked the spectre of an all-powerful deity demanding sacrifice to prove your worth. But wait; what is Lent really and where did it come from?
Yes, there is a desert element, but there is more than “wandering in the desert”; there is something more divine than just sacrificing your liquor or your chocolate to appease the “old man” with the long flowing white beard. There is – actually- a form of identification and lifting up which we so often overlook as we concentrate on “penance” for the sake of penance.
In the early years of the Church one did not just “join up” and start sipping and eating at the Eucharist. Things were considered in a very deliberative fashion. The new “pledges” that the Church referred to as “catechumens” were expected to learn about the scared mysteries of the faith and to prepare themselves for baptism in a very thorough way. Baptism was viewed as a door, a worm hole, which led from one form of life to another; it was death leading to “larger life”. One died to this world and was reborn into another – the world of the Church.
So these catechumens studied, and prayed. As time went on their “ritual” of learning and prayer took on aspects of fasting and denial. And as time went on the already established members of the Church felt the urge to support these catechumens in their journey and help them resist the temptation to “fall back” or give up. And so they began to emulate their prayers and their practices to encourage them. Therein lays the beginnings of what we now call the season of Lent.
The importance of this history lesson is this: Lenten discipline is not about discipline or sacrifice for its own sake. It is, as with all the practices of the faith, about bringing to bear on the human condition the mercy and blessing of a truly loving and caring God. It is about supporting others and in doing so lifting ourselves up out of our own narrowness thereby moving us closer to God.
In a recent article on the Faith and Leadership Blog the Reverend Rhonda Mawhood Lee writes about another way to view Lent which we typically overlook. She writes:
So I keep a holy Lent by listening to Thomas Tallis’ “Lamentations of Jeremiah and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” I savor wine and chocolate in moderation. Most importantly, I tend the human relationships the church’s Lenten disciplines are meant to support. I give alms, especially to those who suffer in winter’s cold. I make myself available for conversation with people who may be struggling with seasonal affective disorder or chronic depression. And from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, I mail a handwritten note each day to someone who may need a word of encouragement or appreciation.
Even with its challenges, I have come to see Lent as a gift: a season when the church places the hardships and trials of this life at the forefront of our attention, acknowledging their cost yet proclaiming that none of them can keep Easter from coming. For those who feel stuck in the wilderness, waiting in hope for the resurrection may mean gathering together for beer and pizza, or coffee and cake. And that is holy.
This epitomizes the earliest beginnings of this season. It is not one which glorifies self-sacrifice or self-denial but rather one meant to reach out “tending to human relationships”, “giving alms to those suffering”, and “making oneself available for conversation” so as to bring to bear the power of the Resurrection upon the “hardships and trials of this life”.
I confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have not been faithful in following these practices. But for my Lenten discipline I intend to use this holy season as a way of reaching out and making the hardships and trials of this life as experienced by others the target of my love as an expression God’s love and by supporting others to the best of my ability.
 MacCullough, Christianity – The First Three Thousand Years. Viking Press (New York, 2009). Page 200.
 My thanks to the Reverend Emily R. Hylden for noting this blog and this article in a recently published piece she authored and then published on her blog: Hope of Things Not Seen on February 9, 2016. see The Tenderness of Lent