Ash Wednesday and Lent

Gregory the Great (540-604) dictating the Gregorian chant

Gregory the Great (540-604)        dictating the Gregorian chant

The period of Lent, derived from a 14 century English word for “springtime”, has a long history within Christianity.  In the first few centuries of the Christian movement, believers would spend several days in fasting and preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter. The Lenten period was eventually extended to forty days, but it got its biggest boost from the sixth century bishop of Rome, Gregory the Great (540-604).  Gregory moved the beginning of Lent to what many Christians now call “Ash Wednesday”, establishing “Lent” as an important period in the yearly calendar of the Western Christian church.

The Chapel is a diverse community of faith, and so the idea of “Lent” for some may sound a little weird, or simply “a bit too Catholic”. So perhaps it might be some consolation to you to know that John Calvin, one of the great Protestant evangelical Reformers and champions of the Bible, considered Gregory the Great to be the “last good pope”.

Gregory the Great grew up in a rather affluent community in Italy with great opportunities for education and family life. It was kind of like growing up in Williamsburg. If they would have had refrigeration back then, Gregory’s Rome might well have had at least one frozen yogurt place per every square mile.

But all was not well in Gregory’s world. When Gregory was just a kid, a terrible plague swept through the then declining Roman Empire, killing a third of the population. Can you imagine what it would be like to lose one out of every three of your friends? It was a grim reminder that life can deal you a tragic blow when you least expect it.

So it is conceivable that Gregory had an important reason for emphasizing the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, Gregory would mark the foreheads of fellow Christians with the sign of the cross with ashes, reminiscent of Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you will return”. For Gregory, this mark of mortality was a reminder to believers that life is a gift that we should never take for granted.

The fasting that is traditionally associated with Lent is not an end in and of itself. Instead, fasting confronts us of the fragility of human existence.   Whenever I fast, even if it just means skipping a few meals during the Lenten season, or giving up some favorite habit for awhile, I become thankful for what I have received from God, particularly for Jesus’ saving work done on the Cross.

I pray, that like Gregory the Great, we may all become soberly aware of what it means to live a life of gratitude.

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7 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    As John mentioned yesterday, he and I have been invited to blog our way through the season of Lent, with a group of fellow believers in our local community of faith. I thought it might be nice to first reflect on where “Lent” came from. We hope you enjoy these posts….

  2. Clarke,
    You might consider that rather than “giving Up” something – Christians are urged to do something positive each day during Lent.

    1. Leave it to my mother to be the first person to comment on the blog post 🙂

      Thanks, Mom, and thanks for putting the fasting element of Lent into a more positive perspective!

  3. Thank you for this Clarke…how many of us just nod and murmur vaguely like we really know what Lent is about and what the ashes mean? Thanks for a great history lesson!

    1. Nina, that is a great point. Simply going through the motions without any clue as to why we do things demonstrates our need to growing in maturity in our faith. Thanks.

  4. I love that even after all my life in churches that celebrate the season of Lent, I am learning more about the story behind Ash Wednesday…I had no idea. Thanks for the history lesson.

  5. Thank you for sharing. I am very familiar with Lenten season. I relocated from Boston a couple years ago, and growing up strict Irish catholic this was time I dreaded as child it meant sacrifice, fasting and hours at the stations of the cross. Being away from the Catholic Church for many years, and coming to the chapel, I have been inspired to have a personal relationship with god, which was foreign concept growing up on Cape Cod. Since, I have grown in faith in the nearly 18 months at the chapel, this lent season takes on a new meaning …for me. With the teachings from Travis, Doug & Rich I have come to love, this lent showcases all the catholic rituals I grew up and what I was being taught many years ago, I thank you for your blog, you just brought that full circle for me.

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