The symbols and meanings of the Season of Lent
Over the years I have been asked about the different symbols and meanings that show up in Lent. So I thought I would take time for this newsletter to address those areas. The observance of the season of Lent first appeared between 200 – 300 AD. The term Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon world lencten, which means ‘springtime’ which it feels like as I write this article. The season of Lent spans 40 weekdays beginning on Ash Wednesday and climaxing during Holy Week with Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday), Good Friday and concluding the Saturday before Easter. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent.
Originally, Lent was the time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, a time of
concentrated study and prayer before their baptism at the Easter Vigil, the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord early on Easter Sunday. But since these new members were to be received into a living community of faith, the entire community was called to preparation. Following the model of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, new adult converts practiced Lenten penance and prayer for forty days.
Today, Lent calls us to look back on the impact of our baptism on our lives.
How are we doing, we who have died to sin and come alive to new life in Christ? In repentance we ask our Lord to clear our lives of sin. Lent is therefore marked in the Christian church by a time of prayer, especially helping those in physical need with food and clothing, or simply the giving of money to charities.
The more visible symbols of Lent begin with the ashes on Ash Wednesday. The cross-shaped smudge of ashes received on our foreheads becomes a solemn, public reminder of our mortality and repentance. Ashes are made from using the Palms from the previous Palm Sunday, illustrating the circle of the Church Year. I am particularly honored to add the ashes of Palms from a beloved member of our congregation into the burning of ashes. The Palms used on Palm Sunday comes from the ancient Jewish and Roman symbol of victory and is used in triumphal processions and for decorations.
Other symbols in the life of the church is the fact that there is none – the worship space is usually stripped of extra decorations, and the joyful singing of ‘alleluia’ is removed from hymns and choir anthems.
Perhaps the most common symbols of Lent are the colors. The usual color of Lent is purple, which is a color representing repentance. Black, the symbol of sin, death and darkness, is used on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and scarlet, used in Mosaic purification rituals as well as used to describe sin, is used on Palm/Passion Sunday to reflect on the Passion story of Jesus’ suffering and death that is read that day.
Now, what would it be for Lutheran’s to speak of a church season and not mention food?
So here is a couple of fun facts. There are two items associated with the season of Lent – hot cross buns and pretzels. Hot cross buns were developed for the season as meat and eggs were not allowed. The marking of the cross is a reminder of the season. Pretzels were developed in Germany to be eaten on fast day as they are made of only flour, salt and water and shaped in the form of arms folded in prayer.
However, the symbols of Lent are not just visible ones. The number of days itself 40 (as in the 40 days of Lent) is connected with many biblical events, but especially with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry by facing the temptations that could lead him to abandon his mission and calling. (Matthew 4:1-11).
Now, before we begin the season of Lent there is Shrove Tuesday. Since Lent was a time of discipline and fasting (more on this on Sundays), it doesn’t come as a surprise that the day before this began became a feast! Lenten diets were to avoid as much as possible rich food (fats and oils).
Historically, the household oils had to be used up before Lent because they would not keep. This idea gave birth to Shrove Tuesday celebrations: in Germany, “Fastnachts’ (the night before the fast), in France “Mardi Gras’ (Fat Tuesday), in Latin countries “Carnivale’ (Farewell to meat), in England this meant Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday.
The dictionary defines “Shrove” as to forgive.
I invite each of you into an intentional Lenten journey this year. Maybe the intention is just that one word. Forgive. Specifically, I invite each of you to recall your baptism and consider what it means to you in your daily life.
Consider the promises made as you affirm your baptism:
(this version is from 236 of the ELW):
Do you intend to honor the covenant God makes with us in holy baptism:
to live among God’s faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
I am very excited about what this can mean for us individually and as a community of faith.
Blessings on this Lenten Journey
Rev. Imani Olear