We are currently in the Christian season of Lent. So what is Lent? Lent is a season of 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The season does not have the same date every year because it is based on the date of Easter. Easter’s date is calculated as the first Sunday following the first full moon occurring after the Vernal Equinox (March 21st). This calculation was defined by the Council at Nicea in 325 of the Common Era.
The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English word lente and the Old English word lencten which means “lengthen” as the days became longer in the spring. Lent is, therefore, the season when the days get longer.
It is a period of fasting, self-examination, and penitence for the individual in preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection.
Calculating When Lent (and Easter) Occurs
If you look closely, you will notice that the Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter on a date that is different from the Western Churches in spite of the fact that the Great Schism did not occur until 1054 so everyone calculates the date of Easter in the same way. The reason the dates are different is because the Western Church uses the Gregorian Calendar and the Orthodox Churches use the Julian Calendar. The Julian Calendar does not calculate the leap years correctly so the Gregorian Calendar was decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to replace the Julian Calendar. In the United States, the Gregorian Calendar was adopted in 1752 which resulted in dropping 11 days from September that year.
Traditionally, Lent was the time when new Christians, called catechumens, were prepared to receive the sacrament of Baptism and were officially received into the Church. The Baptism occurred during the Easter Vigil that occurs the Saturday evening before Easter. In this way, the new Christians would be able to participate fully in the Feast of the Resurrection.
Lent is also a traditional time for “notorious sinners” who had been separated from the Church would be reintegrated with the Church during the Easter Vigil after a period of repentance and fasting.
The Fast of Lent also recalls Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness after his Baptism by John in preparation for his public ministry.
So what is the Fast? This is where people talk about “giving up something for Lent”. Frequently it’s food, but it can also be other things such as technology, or bad habits. Roman Catholics will also give up eating meat on Friday. This was true year around because I remember growing up with no meat on Friday, and I am an Anglican. I once gave up jokes for Lent, and it was the most difficult thing that I have ever done!!
In the Orthodox tradition, the fast of Lent is on the weekdays when the faithful abstain from meat, dairy, fish with backbones, fowl, alcoholic beverages, and oil. On the weekends, the fast is relaxed to permit alcohol and olive or vegetable oils. One should always remember that the fast is a means to an end, not the end in itself. The whole point is to focus on Jesus and his Resurrection.
Instead of giving something up for Lent (fasting), some people incorporate something new or add onto a spiritual practice. This can include reading a spiritual book, studying the Bible, praying more, and learning about other ways to pray and meditate. They enrich their spiritual life by trying a new spiritual practice that may become a new part of their personal rule of life.
Spiritual disciplines are not only inwardly focused. They can incorporate community service work to help the homeless, hungry, or other needy people in their communities. This follows the teaching of Jesus who told his followers that as they did to others, they did to him personally.
Incorporating the Church Year
The Church Year continues on with its cycles of daily prayer (morning, noon, evening, and compline), it weekly cycles of corporate worship, and study either in a group (usually on a weekly schedule) or alone. Lent is an important time in the year when we remind ourselves of how far we have to go and how much we need God’s grace to even approach understanding the events of Jesus’ life and work.
The Church Year began in Advent with the announcement of Jesus’ birth. We reflected on what the coming of the Messiah meant to us then and will mean in the future. We then celebrated Christmas with a 12-day feast that saw good times such as the Holy Name, and bad times such as the Slaughter of the Innocents. We moved to the Epiphany where Jesus was recognized as King by those outside of Israel.
Now we approach the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry by reflecting on the meaning of his life to us, and our response to his life. The fasting and study are of no use to us unless they are offered to glorify Jesus and bring us closer to him.
Meditating on a Christmas Creche
How does a Christmas Creche fit in with Lent? Meditation is a common spiritual practice during Lent. Many organizations offer guided meditations on the daily readings, on helping the poor, and on climate change. One form of meditation that is also called centering prayer is letting go of everything and focusing on nothing. This form of prayer is, to me, like resting in God’s lap for a while.
Anything can be a focus of meditation. This includes your Christmas Creche. Pull out your Creche and select a figure. Meditate where this figure would be at this point in Jesus’ life. If you’ve selected Jesus, look at his journey to Jerusalem and what awaits him there. What does his life reflect compared with the promises you experienced at Christmas? Joseph is traditionally an old man when Jesus is born and is dead by the time Jesus is an adult, but Mary is still a major character in the events leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross.
Select the shepherd and meditate on what has changed in his life and the encounter with the baby Jesus. Do you think the shepherd sought out the adult Jesus? Similarly look at the Magi. Are they aware of what is happening in Judea to the adult Jesus? The more characters you have in your Creche, the more opportunities to meditate on what these individuals would have thought and felt as the events of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection unfold.
Willow Tree makes a beautiful creche which provides many opportunities for meditating on many different characters. Read more about Willow Tree creches here.
On Towards Passiontide
Every year the story moves on towards the Passion – Jesus’ death on a cross, and his Resurrection. You can broaden your story by including the characters of your Christmas Creche within your spiritual journey to Jerusalem and beyond.
Thank you for reading this article. Please continue the conversation in the comments below.