An odd word, Lent.
Most European languages refer to the 40-day preparation period prior to Easter with some form of the words “forty” or “fast.” English-speakers, on the other hand, adapted a Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon (no one knows quite sure which) word that meant “lengthen” — a reference to lengthening days as spring approaches.
Of course, that only really makes sense in the northern hemisphere, but English-speaking Christians in, say, Australia or South Africa nevertheless retain the word. But then they also celebrate Christmas in the summer.
Even here on the north side of the planet, Lent — whose start is determined by the date of Easter — seems to fall more often in wintry weather than warm. This year, though, the name and the season dovetail quite nicely. Easter, which falls on April 24, is later than at any time since 1943 and won’t arrive this late again until 2038 — a choice bit of trivia that can fill a lull in the Easter lunch conversation.
Since Easter falls on April 24 and Lent lasts 40 days, Ash Wednesday — the inauguration of the fast — will be March 9. If you actually pulled out your calendar, counted the days and can’t make it add up, it’s because you included the Sundays in Lent. Don’t. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection and isn’t a fast day. No, that doesn’t mean you can abandon on Sundays whatever Lenten sacrifice you vowed. Yes, it does mean you can rejoice that the Lord is risen — risen indeed.
Lent winds up with the Triduum — literally, three days — that forms the heart of Holy Week. On Holy Thursday, Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper and established a new commandment: to love each other in the way he loved us.
Maundy Thursday, an alternative name for Holy Thursday, is derived from the Latin word for “commandment” — mandatum — which English Christians, who apparently fared poorly in Latin class, garbled.
Good Friday — the day of the crucifixion — is the most significant of the three days, but that might not be obvious in churches that tack a brief Tenebrae observance of darkness on the end of their Maundy Thursday service.
Holy Saturday is a day for somber examination — Christ lay in the tomb and for a while it looked like hope was abandoned. A little time spent reflecting on the utter despair the disciples experienced on this day will enrich your celebration of the good news they discovered on Easter morning.
So, Lenten observances can be a bit involved, but it’s not rocket science. Spend a bit of time at it and the results might surprise you.