One week from now, on March 1, Christians all over the world will be celebrating Ash Wednesday. It begins a forty-day season of spiritual renewal and preparation that precedes Easter Sunday. The season is called Lent.
Actually, there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. But the Sundays that fall during Lent are never counted as part of that somber season. For Christians, Sundays are always "little Easters," days when the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is celebrated, and Lent emphasizes other aspects of Christian belief.
The word Lent is from Middle English and means spring, the season of the year with which Lent somewhat corresponds. According to Philip H. Pfatteicher and Carlos R. Messerli, writing in a book called Manual on the Liturgy, "Lent [as a season of the Church Year] derives from the [period of] preparation of [adult] candidates for Baptism [in the Church's early history]. By the middle of the fourth century at Jerusalem, candidates for Baptism fasted for 40 days, and during this period...[instructional] lectures...were delivered to them."
Of course, forty is an important number in the Bible. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. The Old Testament book of Exodus says that God's people wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The rains that produced the great flood recorded in the book of Genesis lasted forty days and forty nights. So, it was natural that Lent would become a forty-day period.
Pfatteicher and Messerli say that after Christian faith was legalized in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D. "the period of preparation for Baptism became a general period of preparation of all Christians for Easter." That continues to this day.
Ash Wednesday itself, say Pfatteicher and Messerli, features a mood of "penitence and reflection on the quality of our faith and life." The goal is to call believers to remember their mortality, dependence on God, and need to seek God's help in disciplining themselves to surrender every part of their lives to Jesus Christ.
This year at the congregation I'm privileged to serve as pastor, Friendship Lutheran Church, we're committing ourselves to heeding Jesus' call to be servants of God and of others. We're taking our cue from Jesus Himself, Who on the night before He was executed, washed the feet of His closest followers. This was servant's work, but Jesus said, "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet." In other words, the ultimate trademark of greatness is Christian servanthood.
During these forty days, we'll be receiving training for our participation in the special service emphasis we've adopted: encouraging the youth of our community, particularly by supporting the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County. To hotwire the DNA of the congregation with the habit of Christian service, we'll also be using daily readings and holding four Wednesday evening, "Soup, Salad, and Servanthood" gatherings.
We felt that learning to become servants of God and neighbor would be a more significant Lenten discipline than giving up chocolate, losing ten pounds, or refraining from swearing for forty days. We're asking God to make lasting changes in our characters, habits of living that can be our offering to the One Who gives forgiveness and everlasting life to all who believe in Jesus Christ!