Human nature is very weak, as every reader of these words well knows. People, most people, can take only so much of solemnity, of serious introspection. They have to have relief in some kind of relaxation of the body and mind, in humor, in carefree moments. Thus it is that the many forms of popular celebration of Mardi Gras of Shrove Tuesday have taken hold among us. Originally, this was a day for confession and for being “shriven” or absolved from one’s sins. But before facing confession, people wanted to have a last “fling”, to be merry one last time. And so in England, they eat pancakes and in New Orleans they dance and parade in the streets, and in may places through Christendom they celebrate in an especially light-hearted way (sometimes to excess).
Why did all this merrymaking develop? And why did one make his confession on Shrove Tuesday? Simply because the next day, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of a season called Lent. Lent is a penitential and preparatory season for the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. It lasts forty days in commemoration of the forty days in which Our Lord prepared Himself for His ministry by withdrawing into “the desert” to fast and to pray and to reflect -- and to be tempted by Satan.
The word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning the season of spring. The Church’s Lent always occurs in spring, of course, but since it’s beginning, Ash Wednesday, is determined by the date of Easter, and Easter is a movable observance reckoned by lunar calculation and can occur as early as March 22nd or as late as April 25th, Lent itself begins at variable dates in the spring. The Lenten season actually extends over a period of 46 days, but the Sundays occurring during that period are not part of Lent but are feast days.
The observance of Lent in the Christian Church is very ancient. It began in the second century, although it was much shorter in the beginning; it did not extend for forty days until the fourth century and was also not associated with the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness until some later time. It has always, however, had a penitential character as a time of preparation for the Crucifixion and then the joy of the Resurrection. During this period, Anglicans fast, as a means of suppressing the flesh and exalting the spirit, as a means, too, of sharpening the spiritual awareness and mental contemplation of the approaching great sacrifice of Christ of mankind. It is a period of increased prayer and self-examination so that we may bring ourselves closer to God and become more obedient to His will for us. It is one of those several periods appointed by the Church (Advent is another) to help intensify our religious belief, to remind us how far we may have fallen away, and to recall us to God.
A good Lent leads to a good Easter and the satisfaction of a deepened spiritual awareness and dedication developed through Lent allows us to open ourselves fully to the glorious joy of the Resurrection.
It may be added that during Lent, the liturgical color is violet (commonly called purple) and weddings and festive merrymaking are to be avoided.