A period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter

Easter is just around the corner. On 27 March 2016 Christianity will observe its most important feast. Since apostolic times a period of fasting and preparation is observed before Easter. Lent provides for a 40-day fast starting on Ash Wednesday. This is one of two annual and extended periods of fasting.

Lent—Quadragesima—40 days of penitential preparation. Many Christians around the world observe the fast in preparation for central Christian holy days: these are Easter and Christmas. The Advent season was traditionally also observed as a penitential season.

The beginning of Lent falls on 10 February this year. A general fast was already attested in the second century. In the third century, a period of fasting was adopted for the entire Holy Week, and by the fifth century the 40-day fast had developed in preparation for Easter.

Doing penance and sprinkling ashes

The sprinkling of ashes soon came to be added to the rite of penitence in the Western Church. Sprinkling ashes on one’s head is the outward sign of penitence. This was liturgically fixed and called Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Fasting rules in ancient times were strict: one meal a day was allowed in the evening; no fish, no milk, no alcohol, and no eggs.

For forty days before Easter—from Ash Wednesday to Holy (Maundy) Thursday—it was time to do penance. At the same time, candidates for baptism started to prepare themselves for their baptism, because in earlier times the sacrament was only dispensed in the night leading up to Easter.

Temptation in the desert

Jesus’ forty-day fast in the desert was a time of testing to prepare Him for His great mission. Satan came to tempt Him. In the fourth chapter of Matthew we read: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.” He remained steadfast and without sin, resisted the temptations and triumphed over this spectacle of evil: “Then the Devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.”

The Catechism of the New Apostolic Church does not observe a liturgical period of fasting. In keeping with the Reformed tradition, it is up to the individual how she or he prepares for the holy days in a year. Martin Luther also recommended this. No Christian is obliged to do works that God does not require, he said. Everyone may eat anything at any time.

Yet there are still joint approaches in the evangelical Churches in Germany today who have started a Lenten initiative: “Seven weeks without.” In the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, fasting before Easter is a strict custom. Ash Wednesday also plays a liturgical role in the Church of England, in the Methodist Church, and with the Baptists.

Divine service on Ash Wednesday

“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” This Bible text from 2 Corinthians 12: 9 will be used as the basis of the divine service in most congregations on Ash Wednesday, 10 February. The word proves that Paul, the great missionary and Apostle of the Lord, had to sort himself out and redefine his position. His way was a way of penitence. By recognizing our weaknesses and the grace of God, and submitting ourselves to the will of God, we can help the Lord in doing powerful works in us and in the church.

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Peter Johanning