The following is an article I wrote for today's edition of the local paper. The members of the local Ministerial Association submit articles for Thursday's religion section.
"The Real Meaning of Lent."
This is the time of year when many Christian churches start pulling out curious vocabulary that
people not all that familiar with the Church or church traditions often find baffling. We have
"Shrove" or "Fat" Tuesday, "Ash" Wednesday, and the season of "Lent."
For those curious and those who have forgotten, Ash Wednesday is perhaps the most obvious to
figure out of the three terms. Ash Wednesday happened yesterday, and marks the beginning of the
40 days (not counting Sundays) until Easter. Since at least the Middle Ages, the day was marked by
a period of fasting and worship. In many Christian traditions, ashes, usually from the burnt Palm
leaves of the previous year's Palm Sunday celebration, were imposed on parishioners. In the Middle
Ages, the ashes were sprinkled like holy water. In more modern times, the ashes are smeared on
foreheads in the sign of the cross.
The ashes symbolically remind each church goer of that person's own sinfulness and mortality. The
cross reminding each of the good news that when Jesus Christ was crucified there was forgiveness
of sins and guilt. Hence, with the centrality of the ashes, the day became known as Ash Wednesday.
Shrove Tuesday is a bit more opague in terms of Christian history. The term appears to have arisen
in England from a local custom called Shrovetide. Shrove is the past tense form of the now nearly
forgotten English word "shrive." To shrive originally meant to prescribe, as in to prescribe penance
on someone who came to the Sacrament of Confession. This custom of Shrovetide was a week long
call by clergy for church goers to go to confession and receive absolution before Ash Wednesday
came around. Ironically, Shrove Tuesday was intended to be a call to repentance but became more
popularly called Fat Tuesday when the day became more synonymous with gluttony and parties
before the Lenten fasts started than for spending the day going to Confession.
This brings us to that curious word of Lent itself that many churches use at this time of the year to
refer to the Church season. Excluding Sundays, Lent is the 40 days before Easter. Lent was
originally referred to by the Latin name for "40th Day"-quadragesima. Because that word was likely
hard to pronounce by some Northern European palates, Lent became the common term for this
season in areas where Germanic-based languages like English were spoken. Lent is from the Old
English word meaning springtime, or literally the "lengthening" of days.
Sadly, many have come to equate the season of Lent as a dour time where all we talk about in
church services is sin, fasting, and crucifixion. While those themes are present, Lent was
historically also a time when those church members who, because of notorious sins, had been
separated or estranged from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness,
and restored to the fellowship of the Church.
I urge you therefore, gentle reader, if you have been estranged or drifted off from your spiritual
home for whatever reason, take this opportunity during Lent to reconnect with your church family.
Lent is not about cowering in a church pew for fear God will smite us or something, but is about
forgiveness and reconciliation. Sadly, modern Christianity has too often failed to properly
communicate these Lenten themes. There is actually no more fitting time to be reconciled with your
church home and spiritual family than during Lent for Christ is always there with open arms to all
who would come within the reach of his saving embrace.
Make this Lent special: come on home.