Lent is a forty day period that follows the season of Epiphany and precedes Easter. There are two great cycles to the Christian Church year, the Christmas cycle and the Easter cycle. Transfiguration Sunday puts an exclamation point to Epiphany, the season of Light that reveals the nature of the Incarnate Son of God to a world made dark by sin. We end Epiphany on a high note, with glorious sung alleluias and a star strewn sanctuary in honor of the star that led the Magi to baby Jesus. This is also the end to the Christmas cycle. The Easter cycle begins with Lent, which contrary to Epiphany’s high note begins on a very low note indeed. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday, which was February 17 this year, and on that day our foreheads were darkened with an ashen cross, a sign both of our sorrow for our sin and of the cross on which Jesus paid the price for that sin with His life.
For all of its sorrowful start, Lent is not a terribly sad time. It is penitential, meaning we think of our lives as sinners and repent of our sin. We do all wish that we are better than we are. But we also know that with our Savior’s help we can, with effort, become better disciples in the future. So we spend Lent praying, fasting, reflecting on Jesus’ sacrifice, examining ourselves for we might leave behind to better focus our attention on God, reading the Scriptures, especially those that lead us with Jesus to Calvary, and serving the poor and the sick. In a sense, the 40 day period of Lent (excluding Sundays) echoes the 40 days of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. We prepare to better serve our Lord and minister to His people during Lent by ferreting out those temptations that lead us away from Him and His works just as He prepared himself to reveal himself as the Lamb sent into the world to save us from our sin. So, this year, we are examining how we lay down paving stones for our own road to hell, when our entire focus should instead be God’s willingness to lead us onto the highway to heaven that He laid out for us on the cross.
That cross-shaped focus is why Lent was, in the early days, the time of preparation for candidates for baptism. Their lives were examined for sin, they were taught the basics of the faith, and finally, on the Vigil of Easter, brought forward to be made new in the waters of baptism. A little later in the life of the Church, Christians who had fallen away from the Church or who had committed grave sin were readmitted to the Church’s worship and her fellowship after a period of severe repentance. Eventually, the whole of the Church decided to join both the soon to be baptized and penitents in the Lenten journey, for the edification of all.
Over the course of Lent, the Sanctuary is simply dressed, as befits a time of penitence. Flowers, decorations, vestments, are as simple as possible so as not to distract us from our need to repent and our gratitude for God’s grace through his Son. The mood becomes increasingly darker towards the end of Lent as we approach Holy Week, and Good Friday, the observance of the crucifixion.