By Garcia Barnswell-Schmidt, M. Div.
Lower School Chaplain
The term Lent is derived from the old English word Lencten, which means long days or spring. In the Episcopal Liturgical tradition, Lent is a period (40 days) of fasting and penitence, which falls between Epiphany – the date on which we commemorate Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles as the promised Messiah – and Easter, the season of joyous celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
At the forefront of Lent is Ash Wednesday, whereby the custom of burnt ashes from the palm fronds of Palm Sunday, are placed on the forehead to remind us of our sinfulness and our mortality. Sin and death are prominent themes throughout the Lenten season, and if we are honest with ourselves, they are themes that no one wants to think about, but they are a part of our reality. Death and sin are embedded in every fragment of our humanity and there’s nothing that we can do to hide from this reality. Ash Wednesday is a fervent reminder of this reality and calls us to reflect on our sinful ways and to repent. The ashes, marked in the sign of the cross on our foreheads are to the world, a visible sign of our repentance.
Ash Wednesday, however, is only the first of the 40 days in the period of Lent. What shall we do and how shall we be with the other 39? Every year we don the color purple in our churches, we give up our Alleluias, and in the tradition of penitence, we fast or abstain from our favorite foods or activities. We study scripture, we mediate and pray, or we embrace the challenge of taking something on. There is nothing wrong with aforementioned Lenten practices, but if we are to be truly intentional in embracing all of Lent, then we need to remember that the season also invites us to celebrate. It can be hard to consider celebration when all our focus is pinned on repentance. It is important to remember, however, that in our repentance, there is also the act of our renewal in God. If this is not to be celebrated, then what should be? For in each of those 40 days of giving something up or taking something on, we are preparing for what is to come. The elements of joy and renewal are as important as prayer, fasting, and self-denial. As once said by Leonel Mitchell, without embracing the themes of joy and renewal, in Lent, our observance of the season would otherwise become a 40 day repetition of Ash Wednesday.