A little Lenten history
February 24, 2015 by Leslie Scanlon, Presbyterian Outlook Magazine
For some Presbyterians, celebrating Lent is not intuitive — it may not have been part of their family’s pattern growing up. It is, however, connected to the way in which the Christian celebration of Easter evolved. “What is most helpful for all Christians and Presbyterians in particular to remember is that the time of Lent came into being after Easter was decided upon as an annual celebration,” said Jennifer Lord, a professor of homiletics and liturgical studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. “We think early on that the Christians celebrated Easter, celebrated resurrection, weekly.”
The Council of Nicea, in 325, set Easter as an annual celebration tied to the timing of Passover — a link to the Jewish tradition of following the lunar calendar. Easter is set for the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon after the spring equinox. “The development of Lent was to prepare people to be baptized on Easter,” Lord said. At that time, baptism was for adults, and Lent became 40 days of baptismal preparation — counting the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, except for the Sundays in Lent, because “Sunday is always resurrection liturgically,” Lord said. In the Christian tradition, the number 40 is significant, “being this great number, used again and again … 40 in the Old Testament is always signifying time beyond time, this extraordinary time.”
Here are some more facets of that Easter history:
- Some Protestants resist the idea of Lent — seeing it too entwined with the Catholic emphasis on the passion of Christ, on sinfulness and penance, Lord said. Scholars have discovered a mistranslation in documents from the Middle Ages related to Lent, in which a word referring to the “paschal mystery,” the death and resurrection of Jesus, was translated as “passion,” with an emphasis on the suffering of Jesus. The discovery of that mistranslation “was a gift ecumenically to all of us through Vatican II,” Lord said — as it helped Protestants reconsider Lent in light of preparation for Easter.
- In the Book of Common Worship, the invitation to Lent given on Ash Wednesday is to the paschal mystery — a renewal of discipleship, of life in Christ. Lent can be a time of exploring the meaning of baptism, Lord said, considering “What does it mean that we have been initiated into the body of Christ, into the life of the triune God, what does it mean to grow in the likeness and image of Christ? Baptism always has that sense of turning — of turning from sin, of turning to the abundant way of life given to us by God through Jesus Christ, life in the spirit.”
- Lent “is not a time for us to act as though we don’t know the outcome”— that we haven’t already heard the Easter story, Lord contends. “To live out our baptisms is to always attend to both our dying and rising in Christ — rising even in Lent. Yes, the practices or disciplines of Lent are forms of self-emptying (Philippians 2 and Christ’s own kenosis) but they are disciplines that aid us in seeing what is what is life-giving from God and what is death-dealing” in our personal lives and in the systems of which we are a part. “What is the life into which we have been baptized?” Lord asks. “How do we keep turning to its ever-present power in our individual lives, our corporate life, the world?”