Jan 25 2018

Pastor Mike at Aztec Methodist Church

We are quickly approaching the Lenten season. This is a penitential season preceding Easter. Historically, Easter was a time for receiving new members into the church. Before members were received they went through a period of training during which they learned about the expectations of the Church for its members. One expectation was baptism, so prospective members were also taught about that event. Baptism is a ritual about repentance-- turning away from sin, and turning toward God. Much of the preparation time was devoted to thinking about what sins a person had committed, and was now committing to refrain from doing in the future. Self-examination was at the heart of preparing to join the church. 

But over the years it also became custom for long-standing church members to join in this period of self-examination and repentance. This period was then codified to be 40 days long: 40 was a symbolic number associated with the 40 years in the wilderness for the people of Israel, and the 40 days spent by Jesus in the wilderness preparing for his ministry. The season was a period of self-examination, prayer and fasting. The season was called Lent. The name comes from the Old English word for “lengthen”, but also another name for “Spring”.

One hitch: Sundays were the Lord’s Day, celebrating the resurrection and its influence in our lives. It was considered in appropriate to have fasting and penitence on a day of celebration, so the 6 Sundays during this period were excluded from the count of days. The first day of Lent was therefore on a Wednesday. To symbolize their repentance the church adopted the Jewish practice of wearing sackcloth and covering themselves with ashes. This began as a sign of mourning for the dead but evolved into a symbol of penitence and seeking God’s forgiveness (Esther 4:1-3 , Jonah 3:6 ). On Ash Wednesday into a symbolic cross of ashes imposed on the forehead. Somber dress throughout Lent was called for as well.

But in addition to these outward symbols, fasting was also prescribed. Most people would not have been able to fast for 40 days, so the Church settled for doing without meat during lent (though fish was allowed. Other rich foods were also to be avoided. No fats were allowed. So the period before Lent was a time for using up such things as you might have on hand. This season became known as Carnival, probably from the Latin for “farewell to meat”. It was a period of boisterous celebrating before the somber time of Lent. It ended on Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”) the last day of eating rich food. In England they called it Pancake day, making pancakes to use up the fats.

The idea of giving up meat, over time morphed into giving up something else during Lent. One person I know started smoking at the beginning of each year, just to have a bad habit to give up when Lent arrived. That is not what the custom had in mind. For many Protestants in recent years the custom of taking up additional time for study or prayer has replaced or at least added to fasting. This year we will be having a Sunday afternoon Lenten study jointly with the Bloomfield UMC. Eileen and I are still working out details of time, place (or schedule for which church we are meeting at each Sunday) and study focus. We hope you will be able to make time for this additional spiritual practice.

Vaya con Dios