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A brief history of Lent

Throughout history, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for the celebration of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends as we begin the Triduum of Holy Week. The mood is one of penitence and reflection on the quality of our faith and life. It is a time to meditate prayerfully on the meaning of Christ's suffering and death for our salvation. And, it is a time of self-discipline in which we concentrate on the importance of amending our sinful lives.

The word "Lent" comes from the middle English "lente" (springtime) and the old Anglo-Saxon word "lengten" (the time when days grow longer). It is the holy springtime of our souls, a time for preparation, planting and growth.

By the second century, Christians were preparing for the festival of Easter with a two-day fast. In the third century this was extended to all of Holy Week and, by the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., a forty-day period of fasting was being observed. Originally, this period seems to have begun on the sixth or seventh Sunday before Easter and lasted until Holy Thursday; Sundays may or may not have been included. It took until the sixth century for this to be sorted out. Historically, the season of Lent was developed as a time of fasting, recalling the forty-day temptation in the wilderness after Jesus' baptism.

The Lenten period always had, and still has, an emphasis on baptism, for it was the period when new Christians were prepared for their baptism at the Easter Vigil. It is a time for us to affirm who we are, and whose we are.


The Lenten journey from ashes to death to resurrected life begins on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday received its name in 1091 when the impostition of ashes on the heads of all worshippers was made mandatory in Rome. This first day of Lent reminds us that we must acknowledge and confront our mortality. We symbolize this through the placement of a cross of ashes on our foreheads with the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return." The ashes we wear remind us that one day each of us will die.

The Lutheran observance of Lent is commemorative as well as penitential. We regard this season as a time of special spiritual opportunity to contemplate the Passion of Christ, a time of self-examination and repentance, and a time of growth in faith and grace. While it is a somber time of remembrance, it is also a time for joy and rejoicing, for we are saved through the death and resurrection of our Lord.