Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Forty Days of Lent – An Explanation

The Seasons of the Church Year with their Liturgical Colors
I had chapel yesterday and today at WLA. Since yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, and I was to lead Bible reading (but the Bible reading was from Acts 6 and 7, the stoning of Stephen), I wanted to highlight the change in seasons of the church year in some way yesterday and today.  Yesterday we used the Lenten hymn "Savior, When in Dust to Thee."  Today, I explained a little about Lent, the color purple, and why there are 40 days in the Lenten season.

What does "Lent" mean? 

It comes from an Anglo-Saxon word which means "to lengthen" (i.e. Spring, when the days get longer)

When does the season of Lent begin?

It begins the Wednesday after the Sunday of the Transfiguration (i.e. the last Sunday on Epiphany), but is more properly counted beginning forty days before Easter (Easter Sunday is the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon (PFM) date for the year).

How long is the Lenten season of the Church Year?

Lent is 40 days in length, but not including the Sundays before Easter.  Each of the Sundays of Lent are considered mini-Easters, a gradually growing celebration of Jesus' victory over sin and death, culminating in Easter Sunday, the Resurrection of Our Lord.

What is the liturgical color of Lent?

Paraments in Lent change from the green of the Epiphany season immediately to black on Ash Wednesday (a jolting reminder that the next time black will be used as a parament color is the day Jesus died–Good Friday), to purple for the remainder of the 40 days of Lent, with only one other change to White on Maundy Thursday.

What do the purple paraments symbolize during Lent?

Purple is the royal color, the most costly color fabric could be dyed in ancient times (Tyrian PurpleRoyal Purple).  Purple reminds us that King Jesus put aside his divinity (i.e. His royalty) and was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Heb. 4:15).  Purple also symbolizes penitence and self-discipline.

How does the liturgy change during Lent?

The two most striking absences during Lent are the omission of the Hymn or Song of Praise (Gloria; O Lord, Our Lord, etc.) and the absence of Alleluias. The last time alleluias are sung in the worship service are Transfiguration Sunday before they are joyously brought back again on Easter Sunday.

What do the 40 days of Lent symbolize?
  1. Jesus 40 days fasting in the desert and his temptation by Satan before his public ministry began. (Mt. 4:1-11, Mk. 1:13, Lk 4:2)
  2. Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai with God (3 times!) without eating bread or drinking water. (Ex. 24:18, Deut. 9:25)
  3. Elijah spent 40 days and nights walking to Mt. Horeb.
  4. The Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness 40 years before entering the Promised Land,yet they did not lack anything. (Ex. 16:35, Num. 14:33-34, Deut. 2:7, Deut. 29:5, Neh. 9:21)
  5. Jonah gave the city of Ninevah 40 days to repent.
  6. God made it rain 40 days and 40 nights at the beginning of the Great Flood. (Gen. 7:4)
  7. The spies explored the Promised Land 40 days. (Num 13:25)
  8. 40 lashes are allowed as punishment by the Sanhedrin (although only 39 were given) (Deut. 25:3)
  9. Jesus ascended into Heaven 40 days after he rose from the dead.
  10. Jesus spent 40 hours in the tomb from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
  11. The Philistines overtook Israel for 40 years before God delivered them under the Judge Samson. (Jdg. 13:1)
  12. Goliath taunted the Israelite army for 40 days before the shepherd boy and future king, David, killed him with three smooth stones and a slingshot. (I Sam. 5:4)
In a nutshell, the 40 days of Lent symbolize a period of trial, repentance, probation, or chastisement.

The two most prominent 40's in the Bible which Lent points back to are Jesus' 40 day temptation (Matthew 4:1-11) and the Israelites' 40 year wandering in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:1-5).  Notice the connection between the two, especially how Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 to Satan.

What about fasting during Lent, or giving up something for Lent?

While it is true that Jesus fasted in the wilderness during the 40 days of temptation by Satan, we shouldn't think that this is a command for us to also fast during the season of Lent or to give up something for Lent.  But it also isn't anything that God's Word commands or forbids, so if a Christian wants to give something up for Lent as a way of remembering or personalizing the great sacrifice that Christ made on the cross for our sins, then that Christian is certainly free to do so--as long as he or she does not "judge" or "look down on" other Christians who do not choose to do this (and vice-versa).  It's like anything you do–do a good thing for the wrong reason and it's bad, but do a good thing for a good reason and it's blessed.

It brings to mind a memorization from many years ago for me in 7th and 8th grade Catechism class: "Fasting and bodily preparation is, indeed, a fine outward custom; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, 'Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.'"  (Luther's Catechism, Sacrament of the Altar, Fourthly, p. 225 NPH © 1956 ed. C. Gausewitz, a.k.a. "The Brown Catechism").  Luther acknowledged in his explanation to the fourth part of Holy Communion that "fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose", but they don't make you better by doing them.  What really matters is what has been done for us: Jesus, led by the Spirit, faced every temptation that we face daily, and yet never sinned.

Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 night so he could be the fulfillment of the law for us ("man shall not live on bread alone but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God." Mt. 4:4, Dt. 8:3), not to teach us to fast.  Jesus was tested by Satan to show us how to stand up against temptation: use the perfect power of God's Word to defeat it, do not use the imperfect power of human intellect or actions.  Jesus was tested for 40 days in the desert before beginning his public ministry just like the Children of Israel were tested for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land ("to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.")  God was angry with the Children of Israel for not obeying his commands and following other gods than himself as they came out of Egypt.  God let a whole generation die away in the wilderness so that those who entered the Promised Land would be new and would follow Him.

Hymn of the Lenten Season: O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days

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