I was awakened last night with a rather fierce stomach bug. The writing I had planned to do today has been postponed. Kenny had earlier asked me about the meaning of the 40 days of Lent, and its relationship to Jesus’ forty days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. Since my husband Ashley is far better than I at writing about these wonderful subjects, he has graciously agreed to do the writing for me for this post. I hope this answers some of your questions, and if not, please feel free to ask. And remember, we each have our own understanding of Lent and Passion Week, leading up to the Resurrection. Part of what makes it so wonderful is that it means different things to each of us, and the meaning changes as we grow and seek.
I will now introduce you to my husband, Ashley M. Calhoun, a retired United Methodist Church pastor, and currently serving as a research archivist for the Southeast Jurisdiction Heritage Center of the United Methodist Church. He served as a pastor for 43 years.
Hello, Kenny. Paula speaks so fondly of you and admiringly of your spiritual journey and of the 100 days you and she are sharing on that journey. She explained that you would like to know more about the tradition of Lent. I will do my best to explain. By all means, if I don’t answer your questions, please feel free to ask whatever you would like not only about Lent but other subjects.
Here goes: The season of Lent developed over the first several centuries of Christianity. The central celebration each year from the earliest time in the first century was the Resurrection of Christ. In the beginning the date varied primarily around the Jewish-Christian practice of continuing to celebrate Passover as well as the Resurrection Day. As the Gospel was spread throughout the Roman Empire, Asia, Africa, and into Europe a debate arose as to the date of Easter which was decided at the Council of Nicaea in the third century. The date was the first Sunday after the full moon closest to the Spring equinox. Earlier the three days before Easter were considered solemn sacred days of remembering the Lord’s Supper, the crucifixion, and the burial of Jesus, called the Easter Triduum (3 days). Prior to what we now call Holy Week there developed a season of preparation for baptism of the new converts and for reinstating those who had by some serious infraction left or been separated from the congregations of Christians. By the early Medieval period that had extended to 40 weekdays meant to symbolize and parallel the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his three-year ministry. Like for Jesus, this was to be a time of soul-searching, self-denial, intense periods of prayer, and instruction in the scriptures (for Jesus he would have been searching the scriptures for his sense of calling and direction from his knowledge of the Torah and the Prophets).
Lent has for many centuries begun with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes. This is to remind us of our humanity, that from ashes we came and to ashes we will return, and to repent and believe in the Gospel (the teachings) of Christ. Lent is an opportunity to search both our own relationship with God through prayer, search for a simpler and more dedicated spiritual life and life-style, studying scripture, and service to others. It is also a shared journey with others of the Christian faith through worship together, or study with one other like you and Paula, a few others, or a group. It is a time to remember not only who we are in relation to God, but in relation to other people, especially those in need. We often hear of the tradition of “giving something up” for Lent, which has its place, especially if it means in a parallel fashion of “taking on” acts of kindness, service, generosity, and love. There has long been the tradition of fasting, of denying ourselves certain things like meat or certain pleasures. But the purpose of that is not only self-discipline, but making something positive for others out of what we deny ourselves. For instance, taking the money that would be the equivalent of a meal and giving that to some charity who work with the poor, or spending the time we would use preparing and eating a meal to serve the poor in some way, like a food ministry.
Lent is very importantly a time of reminding ourselves of, or discovering who Christ was and is and what his life and teachings say about God and God’s desire for a deep and lasting relationship with us whom God has created in God’s image. It is a time to set our lives in order so that we practice more of what Jesus taught and lived as an example of the true humanity God created us to be.
The forty days of Lent do not include Sundays because each Sunday is a “little Easter” as some say, a celebration of Christ’s Resurrection and living presence and action through the Holy Spirit. Traditionally the worship on those Sundays is more subdued in the liturgical worship than Easter. The color purple is a symbol of penitence. The worship spaces are usually more subdued and sparse. Music is less celebratory, though the themes still remind us that Easter is coming. It depends on each denomination’s worship traditions as to how Lent is observed. Palm Sunday is an exception, at least at the beginning of the service celebrating the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem the Sunday before his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial. As a pastor I always moved in the service from the celebration of Christ being welcomed as Messiah to a reminder of The Passion of Jesus, the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the desertion and denial of his disciples, his arrest, trials, suffering and dying. The main reason being that in fact it is a minority of church-goers who actually attend the Holy Week observances of Maundy Thursday (the Last or Lord’s Supper) and Good Friday (Crucifixion/death), or an Easter Vigil which is traditionally the time of Baptism anticipating the Resurrection of Christ. I learned early on that most go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the joyous celebration of Easter and have no real sense of the events in Jesus life and the suffering he endured and ultimate sacrifice he made for our sakes. The Holy Week services take us through all of that and help us to die to ourselves and rise with Christ which is something we need to repeat often, not only, but at least once a year.
Baptism, as you likely know, is an initiation into the Body of Christ, the church, and into Christ himself. It is a time to repent, to wash away and leave behind the destructive aspects of one’s life and life-style, especially those things that separate us from God, our sin, but also to take on the life Christ taught us and showed us how to live. In the earliest days when the Christians were being persecuted and had to hide from the Roman and Jewish authorities in the first two centuries, they often hid in caves or in Rome and other places, the catacombs beneath the ground. These were places of burial. Baptisms were performed sometimes where there were unused tombs dug into the rock which the Christians filled with water. The convert may have stripped naked leaving behind his or her old clothes, then were immersed, symbolizing dying to their old life, and when they rose out of the water they were given a whole new set of clothes, symbolizing their new birth into Christ. Likely not all converts went to that length, but regardless did go through a similar symbolic ritual. That is still practiced today in some Roman Catholic churches during the Easter VIgil from Saturday sundown until just before dawn, and in some reformed traditions, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, etc. which practice immersion. Other Roman Catholic churches, the Church of England, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, etc. use the tradition of sprinkling or pouring of water and give the option of immersion, and practice baptism of all ages from infancy to adulthood, at any stage of life. Our tradition looks not upon the amount of water or the age but the symbolic washing. When to baptize and by what method, to believers versus naming and welcoming someone too young to make their own personal commitment, has been a two-millenium long debate and one of the reasons we have different traditions and theologies of baptism among other matters of interpretation.
Those of us who offer infant or childhood baptism also offer Confirmation which is a time to commit to the following Christ on one’s own, to confirm the vows and commitment that the parents and sponsors made to affirm their own faith but also to raise the child to know about Jesus, to attend church, and learn the scriptures and to practice the teachings of Jesus in their homes and in relation to others. The promises made in confirmation are to live a life that is following the teaching and example of Christ, to participate fully in the life of the church with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness for Christ. The congregation renews their vows and pledges to support newly confirmed members and to nurture them as they grow in their faith. The same is true at baptism in our tradition. We also give opportunities at least yearly to renew our baptismal vows, usually at the beginning of a new year or at the time we remember Jesus’ baptism during the season of Epiphany which begins 12 days after Christmas, celebrating the visit of the Magi, which was those outside of Judaism recognizing Jesus as Messiah. The first Sunday after the Day of Epiphany is traditionally the time we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
In Baptism the Christian community ritualistically offers the opportunity for entering a new relationship with God through symbolically dying and rising to Christ, God the Holy spirit is the baptizer. It is God’s action in that person which brings new birth and new life.
Perhaps that is more than enough to digest in one reading. I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if you have unanswered questions about Lent or things I have written.
May God bless you on your journey and every day of your life.
Ashley Calhoun (Hubs)
Hi Kenny! It’s me! I’m feeling better – I guess this bug only decided to stick around for 24 hours. It really enjoyed itself while it was with me, though! 😆
Didn’t I tell you Ashley was wonderful? TTYL – I’ll see you on the road and at the campfire. Ashley might join us there too.