The season of Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday, March 9. Depending on our family and faith backgrounds, we carry a variety of memories of Lents past: fasting from foods or favorite pursuits, giving up something for the season, undertaking a time of intensified prayer, reaching out in charity to those in need, and more. But the origins of the season reach all the way back to the fourth century. These forty days were the time of final preparation for those about to be baptized into Christ at the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter. Their period of prayer and learning was also a time for the entire community of the church to recall once more the reality and the power of baptism.
Beginning with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, Lent invites us into a season of renewal that commences with repentance. Leaving the past of sin behind and reclaiming the renewing power of Baptism, the church itself stands forth again, repentant and proclaiming its dependence on God, as the community of those who choose to live life in company with Christ, sharing both his dying and his rising to life.
As members of Christ’s Body it is instructive to hear the voices of Lent stretching back over the centuries. In 1687 the Bishop of Bath and Wells in England wrote a pastoral letter for this season to the clergy of his diocese. Urging them to penance, prayer, and the reading of Scripture, he wrote in part: “The first sacred Council of Nice, for which the Christian world has always had a great and just veneration, ordains a Provincial Synod to be held before Lent, that all Dissensions being taken away a pure oblation might be offerÍd up to God, namely of Prayers and Fasting and Alms, and Tears, which might produce a comfortable Communion at the following Easter: and that in this Diocese, we may in some degree imitate so Primitive a practice, I exhort you to endeavour all you can, to reconcile differences, to reduce those that go astray, [and] to promote universal Charity towards all that dissent from you . . . .” Similar resources to learn and keep the season can be found online. One such website is www.anglicansonline.org/special/lent.html
Following a decades-long tradition, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has commissioned a book for Lent. The Lenten book for 2011 is written by Stephen Cherry, a canon of Durham Cathedral, and is entitled Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility. Cherry’s words may provide to parish reading groups another entry into the spirit of the season.
The celebrant of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, according to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, recalls the origins and intent of the season and then invites those present “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent . . ..” The season opening next week invites Christians to live the passover mystery of life and death in the company of Jesus who gave himself to death for the sake of life.