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.