When you hear the word “Lent” what do you think of? Fasting or giving something up? Penance or a generally repentant nature? A more somber or reverential attitude? Ashes, because of the starting day? All of these certainly carry various aspects of the attitude we generally associate with the season we have just started. I was reading the musings of a fellow pastor recently who pointed out a bit of trivia and history that works change our perspectives in relation to the season of Lent.
But where does the word come from? Why do we call it “Lent?” The English word comes from the Old-English lencten which means to “lengthen” as it refers to the lengthening of days during the time of year, and is related also to the German word lenz of similar meaning. This is not to say that “Lent” is some relatively modern innovation. Lent has been around in various forms since the fourth century when the Roman Empire legalized and started becoming more Christian. Interestingly Lent started out as only 36 days of 6 weeks, excluding Sundays, the church at the time saw this as a sort of tithe or tenth of the 365 day year. By the 6th century 4 days were added to round out the Biblical number of 40 with reference to Jesus' temptation, Moses’ stay on Mount Sinai, the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, Elijah’s fast on his trip to the mountain of God, or even the flood. Forty was such a solid number the season became known in Latin: Quadragesima, which simply means Fortieth.
Surprisingly the English provides more meaning that the Latin in this case, but not the meaning we often associate. Whereas the most general associations were listed earlier, the name actually has a much more hopeful tone than what one often assumes. Lent, while it is indeed a time of spiritual reflection, and somber preparing to celebrate the death of our Lord on Good Friday, is also as the name implies, a time of anticipation. Just like Advent when we anticipate and prepare for the birth of our Lord with reserved joy, so the same is true for Lent. While there may be Christmas countdowns that last for a full 364 days, Lent’s countdown of 40 days doesn’t simply end on Good Friday at the supposed “end” or death of Christ, but rather Christ breaks through death and the grave by His glorious resurrection. This reflects the joy inherent in Lent and its name as it refers to the lengthening of days during Spring. During Lent we look forward to the unending life and eternal day that is ushered in by Christ’s Easter victory. May your preparation for such Easter joy grow throughout this Lenten season.
Pastor Nick Buchholz