But why 40 days for Lent? Well. . .it wasn’t always so. Early Christians only observed Lent for 40 hours--from the afternoon of Good Friday until Easter Sunday morning. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea, 325 AD, where we find the first clear reference to Lent lasting 40 days. The Latin title gives it away: “Quadragesima.” Do you see “40” in that word? (Trust me. It’s in there.)
But why 40 days? For two reasons. It’s a tenth, a tithe, of the year—plus a little. And 40 days is how long our Savior fasted in the wilderness after his baptism in the River Jordan. (Matthew 4:1-11)
But what does Lent mean? It’s meant different things to Christians over the years. In the 4th century, the Christian Church decided to use those 40 days of Lent as a time of intense instruction and earnest preparation for baptism. And all baptisms took place on Easter Sunday, rather than throughout the year.
As the centuries passed, Lent became a season of reconciliation. So those who had committed serious sins spent the 40 days of Lent in ways that helped them focus on their penitence. The goal was a reconciliation service that took place on Commandment (Maundy, Holy) Thursday.
What was considered proof that your penitence was sincere? Severe fasting was one sign. The other? Ashes that were rubbed on your forehead on Ash Wednesday. Those ashes stayed on your forehead until Maundy Thursday! Which makes me wonder if the “aura” around serious penitents added to the penitence of those close to them?
Today for many, Lent is a time to give up something. No meat on Fridays! (But an all-you-can-eat fish-fry is okay?) No Snickers bars! No Diet Coke--I’ll switch to Pepsi.
What will Lent mean for you and me? I pray Lent will be a time when—by faith--we kneel beneath Christ’s cross and confess our sins openly, sincerely. Then I pray our hearts will spill over with humble thanks because we see how Jesus took His Final Steps to the center cross on Golgotha! He didn’t waver. He didn’t turn away, even though Jesus knew he would experience the most excruciating pain, agony, and absolute, total emptiness ever endured by any member of the human race. For when our Savior hung on his cross, he shouldered God’s righteous judgment for the sins of the entire human race!
And if we ask, “Why, oh why, dear Jesus, did you go through with it?” The answer is simple.
“No one has greater love than this: that someone lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Privileged to serve,
Rev. Glenn Schwanke