The power of lent|Season is about slowing down, redirecting focus

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Think of Lent, which begins today in western Christian churches with Ash Wednesday, as an invitation. Many Christians accept it, but there’s nothing wrong with not accepting it, either.

“The giving up of things and fasting — doing less — is not about doing it to earn God’s love,” said the Rev. Billie Abraham, rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Bovina. “It’s about slowing down and giving space in our lives for God. The way we look at the world changes. Our focus changes. It’s so powerful.”

Abraham points out that, at the Ash Wednesday service, the priest “invites” his parishioners “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on Gods holy word.”

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In the context of a period of time before Easter, the word “Lent” does not appear in English translations of the Bible. The word derives from the Old English word for “spring.”

As early as 331 A.D., however, Christians were urged each spring by priests and bishops to observe a 40-day period of fasting before an even stricter fast during Holy Week.

In the early church, Lent — in Latin, “quadragesima,” literally “40th day” — was also a period of preparation required of converts before their baptisms at Easter. The tradition grew to include the whole congregation fasting and praying “to renew their repentance and faith,” states the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

“Lent is a spring cleaning of our souls,” said the Very Rev. John Morris, pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

Modern Christians who observe Lent do so as a time of spiritual renewal, repentance, reflection and looking forward to celebration of the Resurrection.

Peter Mims, owner of a Vicksburg insurance agency, grew up nominally Methodist, with occasional visits to St. George because of family connections there.

Faith of a more personal nature came later to Mims, who converted a number of years ago to Roman Catholicism, undertaking an 18-month period of study. Most days now he attends 7 a.m. Mass, saying there is no better way to begin the day.

“When I go on Ash Wednesday and receive the ashes, it’s a kind of spiritual renewal,” Mims said. “It’s easy to get caught up in running around, in the fast pace of our everyday environment. I think we’re all guilty of this. Lent slows me down and helps me refocus on what’s important.”

Some Protestant churches observe Lent, but many do not, largely because it is considered not biblical, but manmade — an observance based on man’s tradition rather than Holy Scripture.

Baptists affirm self-examination and repentance but not specifically in the context of a 40-day period before Easter, said the Rev. Matt Buckles, pastor of First Baptist Church.

He urges members of his church to prepare for Easter by studying the Gospel accounts of Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection — the events of the Passion week. “We encourage them to focus on those in the days and weeks before Easter,” Buckles said. “Many pastors do sermons on the Passion week or a series focusing on the major accounts in the Gospels.”

The early Christians celebrated Christ’s resurrection “not by an annual, but by a weekly celebration,” the Catholic Encyclopedia states.

During Lent, Catholics and others still consider Sundays “mini-Easters” and on those days relax fasting observances, which vary from person to person and often involve things such as sweets, soft drinks, snack foods and other favorite foods — or even activities or habits.

Other churches, such as the Eastern Orthodox, observe a pre-Lent week of not eating meat before “Clean Monday” to initiate the Lenten season, when many Orthodox abstain from all animal products, meat as well as dairy, and wine and oil. The six-week Lenten period is then followed by the Holy Week fast — meaning, for those who follow the fast strictly, eight meatless weeks before sitting down to an Easter feast, often with the entire congregation.

But the Easter Sunday Divine Liturgy makes it clear that all are welcome at the feast: “You who fasted, and you who did not, rejoice today,” says the ancient homily of St. John Chrysostom, recited by priests worldwide on Easter. “All of you enjoy the banquet of faith.”

Lent’s 40-day period derives from various biblical events involving the number 40, said Abraham, including the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert before entering the Promised Land, and Jesus’ 40 days in the desert before beginning his public ministry.

“These are desert days,” she said of the Lenten season, “days when we quiet ourselves, become barren, in a way, like a desert, in order to recognize God in our lives.”

Lent is a perfect time to learn the value of contemplative or “centering” prayer, Abraham said. St. Alban’s will be open Tuesdays during Lent from 4:30 to 6 p.m. for anyone wishing to learn about, discuss and begin practicing the discipline.

“It’s the gift of silence in a busy, busy day,” Abraham said, “the discipline of stopping. It makes a huge difference in our everyday lives.”

Lenten arts events will also be offered at St. Alban’s as well as The Church of the Holy Trinity, Episcopal, at South and Monroe streets, throughout the season. St. Alban’s arts events are on Wednesdays and Holy Trinity’s are on Fridays.

Contact Pamela Hitchins at