This post is adapted from what I have contributed to a discussion on the Worship Released forum this morning, where someone was asking what the season of Lent is about.
Lent is the long-established Christian tradition of spending most of the period leading up to Easter as a time for some kind of fasting. The total period is 46 days but Sundays are excluded (you are allowed to feast and celebrate on Sundays!) leaving 40 days. That is a number that turns up several times in the Bible, like the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before the start of his public ministry, so was probably not just a number plucked randomly out of the air.
The day before Lent was a chance to use up rich fatty foods that would not be needed so much in the coming season. That is where Pancake Day and Mardi Gras (ie. “fat Tuesday”) originate. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday, and some people choose to be marked with ash to symbolise their fasting.
The season ticks on until Palm Sunday, a week before Easter, when Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem is remembered. Some churches give out little crosses made of palm fronds, which are burnt to provide the ash for the following Ash Wednesday, providing a link between the years. This is followed by Maundy Thursday (the night of the last supper), Good Friday, a silent Saturday and, at last, Easter Sunday! Hallelujah, Jesus is risen!
There is no evidence of a Lent-type season being instituted in the New Testament but, just because it is not mandated, that does not mean it is of no value. Many Christians could do with a little more contemplative space in their lives. The practice of Lent provides an achievable goal for following some kind of extra discipline, whether that is giving something up (chocolate and TV are modern favourites) or taking something on (like my plan to ensure I make time for eight hours of sleep a night).
Lent is an artificial season but then, as all cooks know, a little of the right seasoning goes a long way to making the dish richer!
For more background, plenty of links, and things I have missed, you could start further reading over on the relevant Wikipedia article.
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