Vocabulary of Lent
Carnival, Pancake Day, Mardi-Gras, Ash Wednesday - you recognize the words, but may struggle to explain their significance. They all have to do with Lent. Lent is a 40 day preparation for Easter. Since Lent is a period of restraint, some use Carnival as a final party before the disciplines begin. Since Lent often entails fasting in some measure, Pancake Day and Mardi-Gras speak of the last Tuesday to enjoy rich foods before the fast begins. After Tuesday comes Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. It sets the tone to recognize Jesus’ death and resurrection, by highlighting our own need for humble repentance. These words and celebrations that have worked their way into our language are rooted in the Christian calendar. But even as society has separated Christmas from its Godly intent, so too some of these phrases have abused the meaning of Easter. So should we abandon them because of their misuse? That would be a shame.
I could dispense with Carnival, but the other words carry important meaning at significant times. My own Christian heritage was largely unaware of these observances. We thought they belonged to other denominations and perhaps highlighted moods we would rather avoid. “Don’t put ash on your forehead - celebrate the victory of Jesus! Don’t bemoan our mortality. We have a home in heaven!” We are quick to jump to the empty tomb and skip the season to remember why it was needed. But I have discovered the value of these 40 days for reflection. Even as Advent heightens my heart for Christmas, so Lent shapes my soul towards Easter worship.
That preparation is not automatic. Meaningful reflection is not the product of the calendar. But the calendar offers a grid and guide for my heart. I note that we use days and dates as rails to guide much of our life. We worship together on a particular day. We use calendared vacations for rest. There are days set aside for patriotism, romance, birth celebrations, remembrance of wedding vows, thanks to parents - we even have a National Pet Day! (Your dog knows, it is April 11th.) It is human nature - the need to align our lives with times and seasons. But we hesitate to do the same for our souls.
God established for Israel specific dates of worship and celebration. The Law had festivals and feasts which called into remembrance the works of God. Under the New Covenant we are not tied to specific dates. But we remain human - even forgetful. We could benefit from the nudge of the calendar for spiritual reflection and focus. The Christian calendar has a long history within the Church. It’s been used for education, celebration and formation. There is wisdom in the heritage of believers who have been before us. If observance of Lent is a new practice for you, there are many resources online or printed material available. Our manner of Lent is less important than the heart of it. Ask God to pace with you for a fresh engagement of Christ this Easter.