You probably noticed the bulletins changed colors again. That is not an attempt to be stylish or even to mix things up. Rather, it reflects the changing of the church calendar. Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the day when millions of Christians attend church and were reminded of their mortality—the dust that marks their foreheads reminding them that they too are dust and that it will be to dust that they will return (Genesis 3:19). More importantly, though, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the forty-day season called Lent. Actually, it’s really not forty days but forty-six. Don’t believe me? Go to the calendar and count. Begin with Ash Wednesday and end with the day before Easter. It’s forty-six days. Why all this talk about forty days then? Go back the calendar and count the Sundays of Lent. Begin with the first one after Ash Wednesday and end with the one before Easter, Palm Sunday. How many Sundays? Six. Those six Sundays make the total days of Lent forty-six days and not forty. Why then do we commonly refer to Lent as lasting forty days? Because it does. The six Sundays don’t actually count. How is that? It all makes perfect sense when we remember that Sunday is never a fast day. Never. Not even during Lent! Sundays are feast days—spiritually and physically. Sunday is the day of celebration. Sunday is the day we dine with the king. Because of this the six Sundays aren’t counted as fast days and thus the number becomes forty and not forty-six.
Parenthetically, it is interesting to see the almost complete reversal from ancient spirituality and that of today. For many Christians I meet Sunday is their fast day. They abstain from all sorts of things that they ordinarily would indulge in. I had one person tell me that they never drink alcohol on the Lord’s day. All other days are fine. But not the Lord’s day. For this person the Lord’s day was viewed as a day of fasting. I think that is more common than we might realize. Not so for ancient Christians and formulators of the calendar, though. For them Sunday was the Lord’s day—a day of rich feasting indeed.
As it has already been hinted at, Lent is a time of repentance and preparation for Easter. From what we can discern from history it looks like Lent originally began as a time of preparation for catechumens to prepare for baptism—which historically too place on Easter Sunday for new converts. It seems that the time was originally three weeks and then grew into the forty day—forty-six counting the Sundays–we currently observe, which, there can be little doubt, was based on the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness (Mark 1:13). From there it seems it grew to include those already in the faith, as time of repentance for things general and specific. Additionally, the backslidden, excommunicated, and those outside of fellowship with Christ and his church were also invited to join during this time in repentance in preparation to begin anew their journey with Christ.
Following Jesus example, Lent, as it has already been hinted at, is a time of fasting. A time to give things up. A time to make changes. A time to start new disciplines and habits, and recover old ones that have been lost.
I know some folks are uneasy about Lent. Some of my closest friends and colleagues don’t think that reformed Christians should have anything to do with it whatsoever. But my response is two-fold. Number one: The church calendar is not a restaurant menu. That is, there are not a la carte items. You can’t pick and choose your favorites and leave the others out. You can’t have Easter without Lent. You can’t have Christmas without Advent. Like the five points of Calvinism, they all go together. In the church you eat what you have been served—all of it. Number two: the discipline of fasting—which is at the heart of Lent—isn’t something that we should be worried is going to lead someone astray. It seems to me that fasting is actually a good thing for us to cultivate in our lives.