Scripture Studies

What is Lent?

lent penanceLent is a forty-day period of preparation leading to Easter Sunday. It starts on “Ash Wednesday” as churches, mostly Catholics (also adapted later by Lutheran, Anglican, Methodists, etc), through their priests, put ashes on the foreheads of devotees after holding a mass.  The word comes from an Anglo Saxon lencten, which means "spring."

Among Filipinos, lent is seriously and uniquely observed being the only Christian-observing nation in Asia. They believe that Lent provides time for introspection, prayers, and do some penance. It is also called quaresma (from the Spanish; Latin: quadragesima, meaning ‘fortieth’).    

Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, describes Lent,

“In Lent, many Christians commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penance. Many Christians also add a Lenten spiritual discipline, such as reading a daily devotional or praying through a Lenten calendar, to draw themselves near to God. The Stations of the Cross, a devotional commemoration of Christ's carrying the Cross and of his execution, are often observed. Many Roman Catholic and some Protestant churches remove flowers from their altars, while crucifixes, religious statues, and other elaborate religious symbols are often veiled in violet fabrics in solemn observance of the event. Throughout Christendom, some adherents mark the season with the traditional abstention from the consumption of meat, most notably among Roman Catholics.”

The Bible does not mention the custom of “Ash Wednesday” or the word “Lent”, however, it does teach the importance of repentance and mourning in “sackcloth and ashes” as found in these instances: Genesis 37:34, 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1; Job 2:8; Jonah 3:6; Daniel 9:3; and Matthew 11:21. But the Bible also spoke of the idolater as a person who “feeds on ashes” (Isaiah 44:20)—a clear figure of vanity and deceit. It also warns us about making pretense and false way of showing repentance (Isaiah 58:3-5).

The number 40 also figured prominently in the Bible, such as the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness by the Israelites, and the tempting of Jesus after he spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness.

However, it is to be stressed out that none of these practices and events are connected in any way with Jesus’ supposed observance of Easter. In fact, as admitted by “church fathers”, these are not even practiced by the early church,

“The passage of primary importance is one quoted by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., V, xxiv) from a letter of St. Irenaeus to Pope Victor in connection with the Easter controversy. There Irenaeus says that there is not only a controversy about the time of keeping Easter but also regarding the preliminary fast… He also urges that this variety of usage is of ancient date, which implies that there could have been no apostolic tradition on the subject

“We may then fairly conclude that Irenaeus (who lived between 130 to 202 A.D. and is considered a ‘church father’ by the Catholics) about the year 190 (A.D.) knew nothing of any Easter fast of forty days...

And there is the same silence observable in all the pre-Nicene Fathers (those who lived before the Council of Nicea which took place in 325 A.D.), though many had occasion to mention such an Apostolic institution if it had existed” (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913).

While the practice of Lent had its later adaptation into Christianity, the roots of its customs may be far older than most people will realize. Some scholars have suggested that Lent may be connected to earlier, heathen observance called “weeping for Tammuz”. The prophet Ezekiel described this in a vision he saw wrongly practiced by God’s own people,

“And He said to me, ‘Turn again, and you will see greater abominations that they are doing.’14 So He brought me to the door of the north gate of the Lord’s house; and to my dismay, women were sitting there weeping for Tammuz.15 Then He said to me, ‘Have you seen this, O son of man? Turn again, you will see greater abominations than these.’ 16 So He brought me into the inner court of the Lord’s house; and there, at the door of the temple of the Lord, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men with their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, and they were worshiping the sun toward the east.Ezekiel 8:13-16

The practice of ‘weeping for Tammuz’ was the actual origin of Lent, the Roman Catholic 40-day period of abstinence prior to Easter (starting on Ash Wednesday). Consider that the name Easter itself is derived from Ishtar, the ancient Babylonian fertility goddess and Tammuz’s mother. Alexander Hislop, in his book The Two Babylons, explains,

“the forty days abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the worshippers of the Babylonian goddess. Such a Lent of forty days, 'in the spring of the year,' is still observed by the Yezidis or Pagan Devil-worshippers of Koordistan, who have inherited it from their early masters, the Babylonians. Such a Lent of forty days was held in spring by the Pagan Mexicans... 'Three days after the vernal equinox...began a solemn fast of forty days in honour of the sun.' Such a Lent of forty days was observed in Egypt...Among the Pagans this Lent seems to have been an indispensible preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Tammuz, which was celebrated by alternate weeping and rejoicing, and which, in many countries, was considerably later than the Christian festival, being observed in Palestine and Assyria in June, therefore called the 'month of Tammuz'; in Egypt, about the middle of May, and in Britain, some time in April. To conciliate the Pagans to nominal Christianity, Rome, pursuing its usual policy, took measures to get the Christian and Pagan festivals amalgamated, and, by a complicated but skillful adjustment of the calendar, it was found no difficult matter, in general, to get Paganism and Christianity—now far sunk in idolatry—in this as in so many other things, to shake hands” (The Two Babylons 1959, pp. 104-105).

As noted by the prophet Ezekiel, these are serious allegations that God himself considers “greater abominations”. We all need to take this into account humbly and prayerfully.

During the period leading to our coming to God during His special days called “holy days” (see Leviticus 23), such as Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread (that coincide with the Easter period), self-examination and repentance are very much taught and encouraged, but we should do so according to His manner and ways which are already laid out for us in the Bible. We only need to seek it out and prove it diligently as shown by the example of the Bereans when they heard the word of God preached to them (Acts 17:11).

“Now the Bereans were more noble-minded than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if these teachings were true.” Acts 17:11

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