Two weeks from today, the season of Lent begins with the observance of Ash Wednesday. Depending on the Christian calendar each year, Ash Wednesday can catch many Christians unaware because of its arrival in early February. Last year, Ash Wednesday occurred only six weeks after Christmas Day. When a narrow space separates Christmas and the solemn beginning of Lent, it’s not surprising that many people aren’t prepared to observe a season of fasting and repentance when Ash Wednesday arrives. What might surprise you is learning that the Christian calendar helps you transition from one season to the next.
The Need for Transition Seasons
In our hurried world, we move very quickly between back-to-back meetings, appointments, and conversations. Without any space to transition between the meeting that just ended and the next appointment awaiting you, it’s unrealistic to expect that you will have no distractions from the discussion that just ended. Human beings need time to create mental and emotional space to devote their full energy to the person or task that requires their attention in the present moment. You need time to transition from one event to the next; to reflect on the discussion that ended; to prepare for the conversation that awaits you.
The same is true when the Church announces, ‘it’s time to enter a season of repentance and fasting.’ We need days—even weeks—to prepare for a season that will test our spiritual mettle. Lent is a lengthy season of prayer, fasting, and repentance—forty days, not counting Sundays. Transitioning from Christmas celebrations, the beginning of the new year, and all that has transpired since, everyone needs space to plan for Lent several days before Ash Wednesday arrives.
Preparation Days: Past and Present
When God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath, an essential ingredient of faithful Sabbath-keeping was the observance of a Day of Preparation. Before the Sabbath arrived, a whole set of preparations had to be made so that Sabbath observance could begin promptly at sundown. Not only did Israel show her wisdom in observing a full day of rest, she reveals her wisdom by assigning the Day of Preparation to protect the gift of the Sabbath each week.
Preparation days are still present in the Christian calendar, though they may be tucked away or unobserved in many local churches. Interestingly, there are a few events observed between Epiphany and Lent that help Christians prepare for Ash Wednesday. Candlemas always occurs on February 2nd and it serves as a ‘hinge moment.’ Candlemas is the day when Joseph and Mary present Jesus in the Temple. This event pivots our hearts and minds from the joy of Christ’s birth to the mission of his birth: the Cross.
When Joseph and Mary enter the Temple, Simeon welcomes the Christ child in his arms and prophesies that he will bring light to the nations. Then Simeon speaks these solemn words to Mary about the destiny of her son: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul also.’
Just as Simeon’s words prepared Mary for her Son’s destiny, so this story reminds us who the Christ child is: ‘the Lamb of God, slain before the foundation of the world’ (Revelation 13.8)
Countdown to Lent
You or your local church may not have observed Candlemas or the other three days that anticipate the arrival of Lent—Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima. Those are fancy Latin words which simply mean ‘seventy,’ ‘sixty,’ and ‘fifty.’ They occur on the final three Sundays before Ash Wednesdays. They simply alert the Church: ‘Lent is coming. It’s time to prepare your hearts.’ The wisdom of Christ is within that alert regarding sacred time. We need transition times to prepare for a holy Lent.
How Will You Observe this Lent?
This year, the Christian calendar places Ash Wednesday on March 5th. You need not celebrate these ‘gesima’ Sundays or Candlemas at your church to be ready for Ash Wednesday. At Apostles I’m batting 1 for 4 on these special Epiphany services. We observe Candlemas, but not the ‘gesima’ days. But I’m beginning to observe these days in heart and mind.
I feel the day drawing hear when I will receive ashes myself and impose ashen crosses on the foreheads of the faithful with the words, ‘from dust you came to dust you shall return.’ When that moment comes, will it not be so much more meaningful if you are prepared and fully present to Christ? Ash Wednesday isn’t meant to be a day of fretting about whether you’ll give up chocolate, soft drinks, or some other fast for forty days. Better to begin praying now about how you will honor Christ with repentance and fasting than praying in a hurry while in procession to receive ashes on your forehead.
Speaking of Lenten fasts, I’ll post again next week about how I plan to observe Lent. Here’s a preview: I recommend a different fast than chocolate or soft drinks, but I do advise reading some memoirs and nonfiction. More specific ideas and suggestions about how to observe Lent next Tuesday.
For now, it’s enough to realize that it’s time to transition and prepare for what lies ahead—the way of the Cross.