by Gijsbertus van Hattem
A new part of the church year begins on Ash Wednesday—namely, the Easter cycle. This cycle begins with Lent, a period of forty days from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter. This number excludes Sundays, which always commemorate Christ’s resurrection. So, Ash Wednesday technically marks 46 days until Easter.
In the liturgy, each Sundays in Lent is named after the beginning text of the opening Psalm (Introitus) in Latin for that Sunday: Invocavit, Reminiscere, Oculi, Laetare, and Judica. The sixth and last Sunday is Palm Sunday. The liturgical color for the season is purple, which stands for penitence and repentance. During this period, we supress joy in the liturgy; the Gloria in Excelsis, the ‘great Gloria,’ is not sung, and from the fifth Sunday of Lent (Judica), the so-called ‘little Gloria’, the Gloria Patri, is also omitted. The same applies for the Hallelujah between the Epistle and Gospel readings.
Just as the season of Advent, at the beginning of the Christmas cycle, is a time of preparation for the feast of Christmas, the season of Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. The number 40 reminds us of several important events in the Scriptures—or example, the 40 days of rain during the flood, the 40 days that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai to receive God’s law, the 40 years of the Israelites’ desert journey before they were allowed to enter the Promised Land, and the 40 days when Elijah, by the power of one meal, went without food until he reached Mount Horeb. But the number 40 especially reminds us of the 40 days that our Lord Jesus Christ spent fasting in the desert after His baptism in the Jordan, and how He was then tempted by the devil.
The temptation of Jesus actually determines the theme of Lent: Jesus’ struggle against the devil, sin, and death—a battle in which He was victorious through His atoning sacrifice on the cross at Calvary on Good Friday. He confirmed this victory with and through his glorious resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday.
Passiontide or Passion Time begins the week of Judica Sunday. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the last week of Lent. This week marks the culmination of Lent with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Easter Sunday then marks the start of the joyous time of Christ’s victory, which we commemorate every Sunday by coming together in worship on this first day of the week.
As a time of preparation, the season of Lent is therefore a time of penitence and repentance, of reflection and of adoration, in order to contemplate the great miracle of God’s love and our redemption. It is also a time, as Jesus did, to persevere in the battle against evil—to not weaken but instead to overcome by the power of faith in the Savior.
The meaning of this season can be well summed up in the words of Martin Luther in his explanation of the Second Article of the Creed (on redemption): “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”
O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days
O Lord, throughout these forty days
You prayed and kept the fast;
Inspire repentance for our sin,
And free us from our past.
You strove with Satan, and You won;
Your faithfulness endured;
Lend us Your nerve, Your skill and trust
In God’s eternal Word.
Though parched and hungry, yet You prayed
And fixed Your mind above;
So teach us to deny ourselves,
Since we have known God’s love
Be with us through this season, Lord,
And all our earthly days,
That when the final Easter dawns,
We join in heaven’s praise.
– LSB 418
Rev. Gijsbertus van Hattem is President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belgium.