What is Lent? And who are Easter people?

By February 28, 2020

We’ve heard time and again through Lenten and Easter sermons that “We are an Easter people…” but do we know what the heck that means for us as it pertains to our faith — and our day-to-day life? Let’s explore together this long and mystical season of Lent, a stretch of time swathed in symbolism, chock full of spiritual opportunities, and spiced with some seemingly bizarre traditions.*

As Methodists, we might not know as much about the traditions and symbolism of the Lenten season as much as, say, someone who was raised in the Catholic faith which is heavily centered on tradition. We Methodists rely on the intersection of four key components of our faith: scripture, experience, tradition, and reason. With that, however, our understanding of some of the things we do remains a little bit murky. For instance, we all know that on Ash Wednesday we get ashes put on our foreheads; we tend not to know why we get those ashes on our foreheads.

When asked to try and explain the multifaceted and symbolically laced season of Lent centered around three key facts, Rev. Linda was hard-pressed to narrow down her explanation for fear of dramatically oversimplifying one of the most holy of times of the year for us as Christians. Over time, however, as an eager student of Lenten traditions I was able to coax to the surface some of the most important elements of the season of Lent.

Historically, Lent originated as a time of preparation for new converts leading up to their baptisms on Easter Sunday. As faith communities in support of these new converts, their entire congregation also became involved in self-reflection, repentance, and rededication of their lives to following the ways of Christ.

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan

The most interesting and symbolic elements of Lent was, for me, its mirroring of the Winter season. Lent is a contemplative and introspective time for us as Christians as we prepare for what we all know is coming. (Spoiler alert, Jesus is betrayed.)  This time of introspection emotionally is paralleled with the physical changes of the season that happen around us.

As we turn inward, so too do all of the physical representations of life as we know it. Our days are shorter as the Earth’s axis tilts away from the Sun’s bright burning light, and trees are budless, with leaves remaining safely inside their branches. Animals hibernate, remaining in burrows and dens while they wait for snow to melt, days to warm, and food to return. Harvests are less bountiful as the seeds remain sheltered deep within the earth’s protective layers.

As we continue through the Season of Lent, stories in the Gospels remind us of the days leading up to Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, his ultimate betrayal on Maundy Thursday, his crucifixion on Good Friday, and — arguably the paramount day in the Christian tradition — Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

“So many of us know that we are an Easter people, but act more as though we are a Good Friday people,” Rev. Linda remarks. “The purpose of Lent is not to beat ourselves up, but to reflect on who we are – our priorities, our choices, our actions, and the way we see ourselves and others as beloved children of God, created in love and for love.” She pauses, reflective. “In my mind, I imagine Good Friday as the day of kneeling down and Easter Sunday as the day of rising up. It is in living out our ‘rising up’ that we become the people of God — Easter people.”

So during this — and every Lenten season — we are reminded to look inward and examine our own selves – our actions and our choices – and decide anew what it means to be an “Easter people” in our own lives.

As the season of Lent progresses, our days get longer as the Earth’s axis tilts once again, trees begin to bud, flowers bloom, and animals come out of their dens as they – and we – are beckoned gently out by the Sun’s warming glow. As much as we’d all rather just burst out of hiding and scream “It’s spring!” the work of Lent’s introspection demands its own time of being honored. Sometimes being an “Easter people” involves patience and just a little more introspection than maybe we are inclined to embrace.

So after Easter has come and gone, how can we hang onto that sense of joy and elation we experience on Easter Sunday?  How can we preserve and cling to our being an “Easter people” throughout the year? What my explorations as a student of Lent have revealed is that the key to maintaining our Easter elation is to continue to focus on resurrection, renewal, reawakening, and re-emergence of life. That’s not to say that we forget the trials Jesus faced, but rather that we choose, just as Jesus did, to forgive.

If I was able to garner anything from the insightful conversation I shared with the knowledgeable Rev. Linda McDermott, it’s that as Methodists we should challenge ourselves especially during the season of Lent, not to focus on the impediments and impurities of the season, but to allow the difficult work of honest self-reflection to lead us through the darkness and emerge transformed. I imagine this is how we become — and stay — Easter people. Today, tomorrow, and every day.

*Speaking of bizarre traditions:

  • Did you know that in the early days of the church, pastors did not dip their thumbs into the ashes to draw the shape of a cross on your forehead? Instead, they poured or sprinkled ashes over your head!
  • Did you know that John Wesley fasted from all food twice a week during Lent? This allowed him to spend more time in prayer, which he thought was made even more meaningful when combined with giving to the poor!
  • Did you know that some Christians do not sing “Alleluia” and/or “Gloria” during Lent? This practice, sometimes called “burying the Alleluia” is a way of recognizing the solemnity of the season, anticipating the praise that will be sung to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday!
  • Did you know that the pretzel has special significance during Lent? According to legend, a 7th century monk made bread from flour, water, and salt (no eggs or milk allowed during Lent), formed it into the shape of a common prayer pose of the day – hands on opposite shoulders!
  • Did you know that the 40 days of Lent represents the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism? The 40 days begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Sundays are not counted in these 40 days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter”- a joyful anticipation of the Resurrection!
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