Explaining Lent to Non-Liturgical Christians


Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga.
Signs of spring are here. Pollen actually started falling in January in Moultrie, Ga. Robins are beginning to arrive. It will not be long before hummingbirds make their long migration back to South Georgia. Soon farmers will be turning the soil and preparing the ground for seed. Butterflies will emerge from their chrysalises. Bream will spawn in ponds and riverbeds. All around us nature is waking up. Preparation is being made for another growth cycle.

Within this growth cycle of spring, Easter is coming. It finds its way into the spring calendar every year, its date moving like a Mexican jumping bean. Have you ever wondered why? Why don't we have a fixed date for Easter as we do for Christmas?

In the early church, bishops in the East and those in Rome were celebrating the Easter feast on different Sundays. Apparently there was no unanimity on the date of Jesus' resurrection. So when the bishops came together to address some deep theological matters in Nicaea in 325 A.D., they addressed this practical issue of ensuring the same day was chosen to celebrate the Easter feast every year. Since there was no strong consensus on the original date, they felt that Sunday was the most appropriate date to celebrate. Changing to a uniform date did away with any future arguments about the true Easter date.

The new system, determined by the moon's phases, ensured that the Easter feasts would jump around within a small window of dates. Tying the dates to the moon phases ensured that no one could get the dates wrong again. Such dating sounds strange to modern ears, but it made very good sense to people of the fourth century who were tied to the land and the heavens. The council of Nicaea decided that Easter would be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon that occurred after the spring equinox. Because of the way the lunar calendar cycles, Easter must occur between March 22 and April 25.

The preparation for Easter became known as Lent, which comes from the Old English word "lencten," meaning "lengthen" as the days do as winter gives way to spring.

Originally, in the early church, Lent spanned 40 weekdays, beginning on Ash Wednesday, moving through Holy Week's Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and concluding the Saturday
before Easter. Lent became a time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, a time of concentrated study and prayer before their baptism at the Easter Vigil. Those who had become believers during the year were baptized early Easter Sunday morning. As these new members were received into a living community of faith, the entire community was called to preparation. This also became a time when those who had been separated from the Church would prepare to rejoin the community.

Sundays in Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent.

The number 40 is connected with many biblical events, but especially with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for his ministry, overcoming temptations that could have led him to abandon his mission and calling. Christians today use this period for introspection, self-examination and repentance.

Preparations are being made all around us for another growth cycle. Why should that be any different within our spiritual lives? Spiritual growth is more intentional than not. Jesus modeled that spiritual growth involves spiritual disciplines.

Easter is on the calendar and Easter Day will come and go whether we do any planning. However, Easter will not produce much spiritual growth in us without preparation. We may find ourselves stooping down to peer inside the empty tomb on Easter morning without a great deal of excitement or awe, since we've heard the story so many times before, unless we prepare ourselves for that morning and for the words of the angel: "He is not here for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay" (Matthew 28:6).

This journey begins today, Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is a day when we remember our mortality, our finiteness. Our time on this earth is brief. The Psalmist says, "Men and women don't live very long; like wildflowers they spring up and blossom, But a storm snuffs them out just as quickly, leaving nothing to show they were here" (Psalms 103:15).

If a farmer misses the window to plant a crop, he will not have time to reap a harvest. If we waste precious days or precious years, we can't get them back. Lent reminds us to seize the moment. Make the season of Lent an intentional season of growth. Make Lent a spiritual journey toward the cross, and then you'll bend down and be in awe of the empty tomb. Easter will be a day of celebration and not just another day!

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. He has written a weekly column for The Moultrie Observer since 2000.

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