Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent.
The famous liturgist Alexander Schmemann wrote of Lent that it is a journey, a pilgrimage. “Yet as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent , we see — far, far away — the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom.”
Lent is the “40 day Christian Olympiad” of prayer, fasting, and charitable giving. You hear people who rarely if ever attend worship talking about “giving up” alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, sugary desserts. Why is that?
Sister Margaret Carney suggests that each of us knows with a visceral certainly that “death smiles at us from the wings of life’s stage like the opera’s phantom singing ‘music of the night’ that each of us hears in hours of silence.” And she reminds us that we carry within our hearts the sense that there will be a final reckoning — and each of us knows that we are not innocent, that some fraction of the world’s guilt lies on our own shoulders. We know that “given the right time and motive, we are capable of — and guilty of — a thousand compromises or worse.” We feel an instinctive, primal human need to atone during a season of fasting. We also recognize and celebrate those whose lives of virtuous habits make the world go around: we honor the sacrifices of our military, the demanding regimen of our Olympic contenders, the utter dedication of our first responders in our cities. And so Lent lets all of us join that circle of athletic and aescetic dedication in a spiritual sort of Spring Training for Christians.
People who practice the aescetic disciplines of Lent, know that for the first ten days you get really grumpy. Nobody enjoys giving up sugar, salt, meat, junk food, coffee, soda, caffeine, all things alcoholic, shopping online, checking Facebook, etc. But then you realize that Lent is not about giving things up. Lent is about focusing your attention on Christ –and Him crucified to atone for your sins, something that you desperately needed but could never have done for yourself — not completely, not thoroughly, not enough. And He was crucified to atone not only for your sins, but for the sin of all the world.
And so, with your focus in the right place (Jesus Christ), you are ready to enter that special season of prayer, pennance, sacrifice and good works in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Christians have set aside some time to prepare for Easter since the very earliest days of the Christian Church — and from the very beginning there were some Christians whose spiritual preparation for Easter lasted 40 days, although this was not “regularized” throughout the Church until after Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D.
Why 40 days of preparation? Because the number “40” has always had special spiritual significance: The flood lasted 40 days (Genesis 7:4); Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God (Exodus 24:18); the Israelites wandered in the wilderness 40 years (Numbers 14:33); Elijah walked 40 days to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:8); Jonah gave Nineveh 40 days to repent or be destroyed (Jonah 3:4); Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the Wilderness & being tempted by the Devil (Matthew 4:1-2, Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-2); and tradition says that Jesus was in the tomb “40 hours” (from Friday afternoon through early Sunday morning).
If you do decide to prepare for the celebration of Easter through the Lenten disciplines of “prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving and self-denial” you should know that the “40 Days of Lent” never includes Sundays. Every Sunday is “a little Easter” and so no Western Christian fasts on a Sunday — this is why we call them Sundays “in Lent”, not Sundays “of Lent”. Of course there are those Western Christians who tell themselves “If you gave up something for the Lord you should tough it out. Don’t act like a Pharisee looking for a loophole.” So they practice ALL of their Lenten spiritual disciplines on Sundays just the same as on the other six days of the week. (Just as if Sunday were in no way special!) You decide for yourself, of course — but let me remind you: if you start counting the days of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday and stop counting after the worship service on Easter Vigil, the only way you will come up with 40 days is if you DON’T count the Sundays. Sundays are NEVER “fast days” here in the West; they are ALWAYS “a little Easter.” So if you want to “do Lent right” … don’t fast on Sundays. (But don’t sing “Alleluia” or “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” on Sundays until we arrive at Easter.)
Lent climaxes with “The Triduum” — the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday/The Easter Vigil Service — about which I will say more later in Lent.
And I hope to see you at worship on Ash Wednesday.