Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Lent marks a six week period during which we prepare to observe our Lord’s death and celebrate His resurrection. Lent emphasizes the twin themes of repentance and growth in the faith. We repent of our sins as we prepare to observe Good Friday and our Lord’s death for the sake of those sins. We also seek to grow in the faith through catechesis (instruction) during this time of spiritual discipline.
By the fourth century A.D., a forty day fast was associated with the time leading up to Holy Week and Easter. During this time before Holy Week, two important activities occurred in the early church. First, those who had committed public sins entered the order of penitents. In the time before Maundy Thursday, the penitents wore special garments of goatskin or sackcloth and covered themselves with ashes in order to demonstrate that they were truly repentant of their sin. They then received Holy Absolution on Maundy Thursday and were reconciled to the congregation. In addition, this period was also the time when the catechumens who were about to be baptized and join the church at the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday received extensive instruction.
Since Sundays were not fast days, by the beginning of the sixth century A.D. the period of Lent was extended so that there would be forty actual days of fasting. Ash Wednesday became the start of Lent and has remained so since then.
The order of penitents and the preparation of catechumens during Lent disappeared in the practice of the Church. However, the twin character of Lent has remained as an important and useful aspect of the Christian life. During Lent we ponder our great sin that prompted our Lord to walk the way to the cross for us. We repent as we confess this sin before God. Through this repentance we prepare to enter Holy Week in which we will observe our Lord’s great saving act on the cross.
The theme of repentance gives Lent a restrained character and this demonstrates itself in the liturgy of the Divine Service. As we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord we say farewell to the Alleluias and during Lent we cease using the Hymn of Praise until Easter. In the repentant time of Lent our praise is restrained.
During Lent we also continue the emphasis on growth and instruction in the faith. Lent is a time for spiritual discipline as we devote ourselves to prayer, and further learning and growth as Christians. The mid-week Lenten services that begin the week after Ash Wednesday provide the opportunity for this very activity. Since the days of the Reformation, Lent has been a season in the Lutheran Church in which homilies during the week have focused on the Catechism. This is an excellent practice that provides a ready-made topic for preaching in these services where the lectionary does not provide a text.
Lent is a time of spiritual discipline that prepares us to rejoice in the triumph of Easter. May this Lenten season be one of repentance and catechesis for you and your congregation as we prepare to observe our Lord’s death and celebrate His resurrection from the dead.