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The Origin & Meaning of Lent

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If we think of what Lent is all about, we will probably think it came about as a sort of imitation of the time Jesus spent in the desert for forty days after he was baptised.

It is true that we always begin the first Sunday of Lent reading the gospel account of Jesus' time in the wilderness, but this is not the origin of Lent.

 

Lent started as the time of final stage of preparation for baptism. By the 4th century the celebration of the Easter Vigil during the night before Easter Day had been established as the great celebration of the year. Easter Day itself was not as important, and everyone who could, gathered with the bishop in the cathedral to celebrate the resurrection during the darkness of Holy Saturday night into the early dawn of Easter Sunday.

 

It was at this great annual celebration that people were baptised. Baptism wasn't celebrated at any other time of the year unless someone was dying. The instruction for baptism at the Easter Vigil took place over many weeks, and the final period was a time of prayer and fasting leading up to the baptism itself.

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As this took place each year, those who had been baptised at the Easter Vigil in previous years would be reminded of their own baptisms by the example of those getting ready for baptism in the current year, and they would join in with them in the time of preparation remembering their baptism and making a renewed commitment to be faithful to their baptismal promises. 

This period came to be known as Lent. It was not always 40 days, in some places it was longer and in some places shorter, but finally the length of 40 days was settled on. 

The association with the time of Jesus in the desert was made later, but it was an obvious link as it was for Jesus a time of preparation for his ministry, as Lent was a time of preparation for those about to be baptised.

The word "Lent" comes from the from the word for "springtime" used in an older form of English than we have now.

"Springtime" captures what is the essence of Lent. It is a time for new growth and new beginnings.

 

It is not really something which finishes at Easter when we go back to having whatever we might have given up for Lent. It is something which ought to lead to new and better life.

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