Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lenten Traditions

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Lenten traditions:

Q:  What is Lent?  Why do people give up something they enjoy?  Are there any other traditions associated with Lent?

Much like a school year or a company’s fiscal year differs from our calendar year, there is also a church year that includes seasons and festivals commemorated by Christians.  Because Christmas and Easter are such important festivals for the church, this calendar includes special seasons to prepare for these festivals.  The season of preparation for Christmas is called Advent and the season of preparation for Easter is called Lent. 

Lent is a forty day season, but Sundays are not counted toward the forty, so this results in the first day of Lent being 46 days before Easter, which is called Ash Wednesday.  On Ash Wednesday, many Christians gather to receive the Lord’s Supper and allow themselves to be marked with ashes on the forehead to remind them of their failure to keep God’s commands and that the result is death.

Contrary to many misconceptions, Lent is not intended to be a season of mourning for Jesus death or a season of misery or despair for Christians.  Instead, it is a season where Christians are encouraged to pay special attention to remembering all that Jesus has done for them by becoming human, dying by crucifixion, and rising to life after three days. 

Part of this focus includes an emphasis on repentance which means to turn away from the desire for sinful things and toward trusting in Jesus.  Another common misconception about Lent is that it is the only time that Christians focus on repentance and remembering Jesus’ death.  These two things are always focal points in Christianity, but in Lent, they receive special emphasis as they are remembered in preparation to celebrate Easter.

Because of the focus on repentance in Lent, fasting has been a very common practice throughout history.  The most intense form of fasting is to refrain from eating or drinking anything except for water for a period of time, but typical Lenten fasting only includes giving up certain types of food or giving up food for certain portions of the day.  Historically, the most common type of fasting for Lent has been to give up meat to various degrees.  This could be as simple as giving up beef one day a week or as drastic as eating a basically vegan diet for the entire Lenten season.

In modern times, this fasting has often expressed itself differently.  Catholics and Lutherans especially, but many protestants as well, will give up something which they enjoy during the season of Lent, such as chocolate, coffee, sugar, or television.  However, this is not intended to be a sacrifice to make up for sins or to earn God’s kindness.  Instead, giving up a favorite luxury serves as a reminder to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us by dying for sin.  Celebrations like Carnival or Mari Gras original began as people enjoyed these favorite things one last time before giving them up for Lent. 

Other Lenten traditions in the church include giving up more joyful parts of the Divine Service or Mass, such as certain songs or the word “Alleluia.”  In the past, some churches have even stopped using their organ or other musical instruments for the entire season of Lent. 

The intention of Lent and of each of these Lenten traditions is never that they be approached as a requirement to satisfy church rules or as something we do to appease God or make up for our failures, but that they are an exercise which helps Christians to remember their need for a Savior from sin and that Jesus has fulfilled that need by accomplishing everything necessary for the salvation of the world by His life, death, and resurrection. 

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