Lent is a forty-day period of preparation for Easter. It begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil. Throughout the history of the church, various themes have been connected with Lent, including the Passion of Jesus Christ, penitential reflection, and catechesis.
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that Thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent, create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of Thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…
– Collect for Ash Wednesday
Lent is divided into three sections: Septuagesima, Lent, and Passiontide. The “Gesima” Sundays are a three-week transition from Transfiguration to Ash Wednesday. Passiontide is the last two weeks of Lent, including Holy Week (see separate pamphlet). Each step prepares worshippers for the celebration of Easter.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter. Sundays are not counted as part of the forty days of Lent, because they remain celebrations of the Resurrection. The Sundays focus on Christ’s resurrection victory more than on His Passion. The forty days also remind us of Jesus’ forty-day temptation in the wilderness (the Gospel for Invocabit, the first Sunday in Lent) and the Israelites’ forty-year wandering in the wilderness.
The length of time of Lent has varied throughout the history of the church. The forty-day observance dates to the time of the Council of Nicea in 325. At other times, the season was up to seventy days (the basis for the Septuagesima season). Lent was often a time of catechesis, or instruction, for those who were going to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.
Ash Wednesday became the beginning of Lent during the eighth century. Ashes began to be used to signify man’s mortality due to sin. The ashes are made by burning the palms from Palm Sunday of the previous year.
The three Sundays prior to Lent are known as Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. These are Latin words that indicate seventy, sixty, and fifty days, referring to the approximate length of time before Easter. This season developed when the season of Lent had not been precisely set at forty days. It reminds us of the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity, even as we are on our journey to the Promised Land of heaven, which we will celebrate with our Lord’s Resurrection. These Sundays serve as a transition from Epiphany to Lent.
During Lent, “alleluia” is not sung during the liturgy, to emphasize the Passion of Jesus and the repentance of our sins, and to emphasize its joyful use on Easter Sunday. Additionally, the Gloria in Excelsis is omitted from the Divine Service during Lent and the Te Deum is omitted from Matins. Flowers are omitted from the altar during Lent. The Collect for Ash Wednesday is repeated after the Collect of the Day throughout Lent in the Daily Office.
LENTEN THEMES: Throughout the church’s history, different themes and customs were observed during Lent. Today, Lent takes on these major themes:
- The Passion of Jesus Christ: remembering the account of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, and death;
- Penitential Reflection: recognizing our sinfulness and mortality and our need to repent and receive Christ’s forgiveness;
- Catechesis: on-going instruction in the Christian faith and life.
LENTEN DISCIPLINES: To help in the remembrance of these Lenten themes, the following disciplines are part of a Christian’s heightened devotion during Lent:
- Increased public worship and private prayer;
- Fasting and self-denial: As part of involving the whole body in Lenten preparation, fasting (such as giving up a daily meal or abstaining from meat) throughout Lent or on Wednesdays and Fridays is a helpful discipline;
- Almsgiving: additional sacrificial offerings beyond usual giving for special projects in the work of the church.
These disciplines are focused from the Holy Gospel from St. Matthew 6 for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. They help God’s people to “cleanse their hearts
and prepare with joy for the paschal feast,” as we pray that He would “renew our zeal in faith and life, and bring us to the fullness of grace that belongs to the children of God” (Proper Preface).
MID-WEEK VESPERS: To allow for the Lenten discipline of increased worship, many parishes offer mid-week Vespers or another prayer office at least once during the week. These offices often contain a reading from the Passion History, a reading drawn together from all four Gospel accounts.
The hymns of Lent are especially strong. There are many historic Lutheran hymns for Lent that focus on the atonement of Jesus Christ for the redemption of mankind and His victory over sin, death, and the devil.
There is a distinct body of hymns that is reserved for Holy Week, separate from the rest of Lent. Additionally, the hymns selected for Sundays in Lent are often different from the Lenten hymns that primarily focus on the Passion of Christ.
Some strong hymns for the Lenten season include: Jesus, I Will Ponder Now (440), A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth (438), O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken (439), Jesus, Grant that Balm and Healing (421), and Christ, the Life of All the Living (420).
Many hymns are especially suited for Holy Week. Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle (454) is a Latin hymn written by the sixth- century writer Fortunatus and is set to a modern, triumphant tune by Lutheran composer Carl Schalk. It expresses both the sorrow and the triumph of Good Friday.
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded (449), written by the medieval hymn writer Bernard of Clairvaux and modified by Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt, meditates on the suffering and Passion of Jesus for our salvation.
The Death of Jesus Christ, Our Lord (634) expresses the connection between Our Lord’s suffering and death and the Holy Communion. O Darkest Woe (448) ponders the mystery of the death of God on the cross on Good Friday.
Many of these hymns show the various themes of Lent and are helpful for Lenten reflection both in public worship and prayer at home.