Lenten Reflections Of Rev. Raymond Oppenheim
By The Rev. Raymond Oppenheim
Vicar of Lower Hutt
The word "Lent" comes from an Old English word, meaning "spring."
It refers to the lenten or spring fast, a Christian observance which precedes the celebration of Easter, that most joyous of all Christian festivals.
Early Christians celebrated three great days - Epiphany (shortly after the winter solstice), Easter (at the vernal equinox), and Pentecost (fifty days later).
Christmas and Good Friday developed later, and it was not until the late Fourth Century that the pattern of Christian festivals took its modern form. Early Christians fasted for one or two days before Easter.
Gradually, this custom was replaced with the current structure of Lent - forty days before Easter, omitting the Sundays (always a feast day in honour of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ).
The number forty echoes the Biblical use of this number to indicate a substantial period of time - specifically the forty days which Jesus spent in the wilderness following his Baptism by John in the River Jordan.
For many centuries, Lent was a time for two specific activities. First, catechumens were prepared for Baptism, which took place traditionally at Easter. Lent became a time of study, prayer, self-examination, and spiritual focus.
In the first three centuries, those preparing for their Baptisms were usually adults, converting from Paganism. They abstained from alcohol, from sexual acts, and from those activities which would distract them from their purpose.
Second, it was a time for reconciliation, when those who had been expelled from the Church for various misdeeds might repent, be forgiven, and be readmitted to the family.
As the Christian Church gained the status of a state religion, this pattern changed yet again.
Lent become a time in which the entire society paused for self-examination and self-improvement. Flowers disappeared from churches and weddings were forbidden. Religious services took on a serious note, reflected in the music and in the use of the colour purple (always seen as a serious colour).
As part of this serious tone, individuals set themselves different targets for self-denial - giving up frivolous activities or luxuries. This remains in the idea of "giving up something for Lent."
Sadly, this has usually meant an overweight person giving up sweets, ostensibly for Christian motives, but also perhaps on doctor's orders. Or the smoker, who gives up cigarettes, makes themselves and everyone around them miserable, and counts down the days to the end of the agony. Surely, this is of minimal value to anyone.
As now practiced by Anglicans, Lent seems primarily a time for extra devotion, involving study courses, house groups, extra reading, and whatever may strengthen the individual's religious faith.
It has also become a time for charities and other good works, on the ground that such activity is the best preparation possible for the proper celebration of the joys of Easter.
- The Rev. Raymond Oppenheim is the Vicar of St James Parish in Lower Hutt. This article is one of a series of lenten reflections Scoop is publishing over the lenten period.