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A Lenten Retreat:
The History and Traditions of Lent

by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

I was once invited to do a Saturday retreat for the people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lafayette, Indiana, with the assigned task of teaching them about the history and traditions of Lent, as well as giving them some worship experience befitting the season. Below is the schedule that I planned for the day, as well as my lecture notes.

 

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1:30 pm      Gathering, Responsive Prayer

1:45 pm      Lent: Its History and Traditions

2:30 pm      The Discipline of Lent

3:05 pm      Break

3:15 pm      Intro to the Stations of the Cross

3:25 pm      Praying the Stations of the Cross

4:00 pm      Break

4:10 pm      Music of Lent & Holy Week

5:00 pm      Light Supper

6:00 pm      Eucharist, TLW preaching

 

 

LENT: ITS HISTORY AND TRADITIONS

I. All living creatures in cycles of time resulting from natural order

     A. Cycle of the day - 24 hrs.

          1. Morning, afternoon, evening, night

          2. Cycle of natural activities identified with each:

               a. = Eating, working to provide food/shelter, sleeping

               b. = Cycle common to all created beings, incl. animals

 

     B. Natural cycle of seasons has major impact on all living things

          1. Spring, summer, fall, winter

          2. For humans = planting, growing, harvesting, renewing

          3. For animals = mating, raising young, harvest/migrating, hibernating

 

C. These are cycles deriving from the natural order

 

II. Natural order leads people to further order their lives

     A. Days ordered into weeks, weeks into months, months into years

          1. Not part of natural order, but imposed on natural order

          2. In history, length of week/month/year have varied

          3. Even today, begin. of New Year varies among nations/groups

               a. For Jews, Sept-Oct.

               b. For Church, Nov.-Dec. (Advent)

 

     B. Significant events further ordered into annual observances

               1. Remembering birth - birthdays

               2. Remembering death - battles, martyrdoms

               3. Remembering important happenings in collective lives

                    - national days, end of war, independence, etc.

 

     C. Human ordering of time =

          1. = Part of creative endeavor

               a. Co-creators with God who set time in motion

          2. = Imposition of the human upon the natural

               a. Has a sense of human struggle with the natural

               b. Esp. ultimate struggle with life cycle: birth, death, mortality

          3. = Attempt at making sense of time and life

               a. Recording history

               b. Remembering for sake of better/enriched living

               c. Remembering/re-enacting in order to participate again

 

D. Church orders year for all the same reasons as stated above

 

III. Roots of Church Year are contained in Jewish practice

     A. First annual observance: Passover, Ex.12

          1. It was formative - Israel became a nation after 10th plague

          2. It was liberating - from slavery to freedom, death to life

          3. Its annual observance commanded by God

          4. Participating in Passover each year =

               a. Re-presenting the event = more than simply remembering

               b. Participating in Passover = part'g. in history, identity

 

     B. After establishment of Israel in Canaan, calendar expands

          1. Festivals related to planting, harvest, new year, etc.

               a. Passover became assoc. w/beginning of grain harvest

               b. = Feast of Unleavened Bread - terms interchangeable

               c. End of harvest 50 days later: Pentecost = Feast of Weeks

               d. Pent. began season of offering first fruits from harvest

               e. Period between Passover-Pent. likely considered a season

          2. Other seasons also develop, along w/days of fasting, repent

               a. By 1st c., fasting 1 day before Passover is common

               b. Fast ended in Passover meal

               c. Passover itself ended at midnight

 

     C. Jewish cycle well estab'd. by time of Jesus in 1st cent. AD

          1. First Passover had occurred c.1200 years before

          2. Jesus & first disciples observed feasts/fasts as Jews

          3. Has natural impact on Christian developments

 

IV. Formation of Chrn. calendar begins where Jews did: Passover

     A. Death/Resurrection of Christ occurs during Passover

          1. Jesus makes specific links w/Pass symbols at Last Supper

               a. Bread & wine, body & blood

               b. Sacrificial lamb, Lamb of God

               c. From death-life, slavery-freedom by blood of lamb

               d. Old covenant, new covenant

          2. Jesus also makes link with Day of Atonement

               a. Annual day of repentance for sins of Israelite people

               b. Incl. sacrifice and sprinkling of blood for forgiveness

               c. Bread-wine/body-blood given "for forgiveness of sins"

          3. Links/meaning understood by disc. only after resurrection

 

     B. Resurrection is pivotal to Christian identity

          1. Singular event in history

          2. Obviously the hand of God working for our redemption

          3. THE event which fully explained who Jesus was:

               = Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah, Christ, Bearer of salvation

          4. Period betw. 1st Easter-Pentecost highly signif. for disc.

               a. Resurrection itself

               b. Appearances of Jesus throughout period

               c. Ascension

               d. Coming of Holy Spirit at Pentecost

               e. Time of questioning/enlightening/understanding

 

     C. Not surprising then that Passover & Pentecost become
          first annual observance of Christian Church Year

          1. Paul's letters show his obs. of Pass-Pent w/ other Chrns.
                (1 Cor.5.7; 16.8) - c. 55 AD

               a. New emphasis on Christ's self-giving at Passover

               b. New emphasis on gift of Holy Spirit at Pentecost

          2. How "Christian" these were is hard to tell in 1st cent.

               a. Likely more Jewish than Christian at this point

               b. Carried over Jewish ideas of observance:

                    1' Remembering = re-presenting, participating in

                    2' Participating in = formative for Christian identity

               c. Likely also contained some form of eucharist

                    1' = Uniquely Christian, instituted by Christ

                    2' Probably more meal-like in 1st century

          3. Also, by 55 AD:

               a. Sunday: common day of worship for Gentile Chrns, Ac.20.7

               b. = Day of resurrection (first day of week)

               c. By end of cent., becomes prevalent among all Christians

               d. But Pass. orig. on specific date, regardless of day

                    1' = 14th of Nisan (= April)

                    2' Not necessarily Sunday

                    3' Sunday Passover predominant by third c.

                    4' Not universal until after 5th cent.

          4. By 2nd c: 50 days of Pass-Pent well estab'd as Chrn. season

               a. Days of rejoicing, exultation

               b. Kneeling, fasting prohibited (Ireneaus, Tertullian)

               c. Season called days of Pentecost

               d. Term Pascha (Passover) reserved for Christ's death & res

                    1' Pascha: Aram. for Heb. pesach = word for 10th plague

                    2' Increasingly in Christian usage = to suffer

 

     D. After Paul, next reference to Chrn. Passover is 2nd cent.

          1. Epistula Apostolorum - from 2nd half of 2nd century

          2. Passover = commemoration of Jesus' death

          3. Marked by night watch/vigil

               a. Continued until cockcrow (i.e., just before dawn)

               b. Distinguishes from Jewish obs. which ended at midnight

          4. Vigil ended w/ "agape meal" = some form of eucharist

          5. Incl. themes of incarn., passion, resur., glorification
               i.e., all themes that were later separate observances

          6. = Rudiments of Easter Vigil

          7. Included fasting before

               a. Follows late Jewish practice

               b. Duration 1 day, extending to "agape" at cockcrow

               c. = Longer than Jewish fast, Pass. meal before midnight

          8. Extension of fast beyond Jews typical of Chrn.
               development of church year

               a. Initially includes Jewish ideas/trad, but goes beyond

               b. = Christianization of Passover

 

     E. Marking of Chrn Passover gradually extends backwards in prep.

          1. Extensions occur differently in various places

          2. Late 2d c. France: 2 days fast before Passover

          3. Early 3d c. Rome: 2 days fast

          4. Early 3d c. Syria: Distinction of light & full fasts

               a. Four days light fast, M-Th = bread, salt, water allowed

               b. Two days total fast, Fri. & Sat.

               c. = Holy Week as we know it

               d. Distinction sees days just before Passover more signif.

          5. Early 4th c. Alexandria:

               a. Six weeks as season of fasting (light)

                    1' Called 40 day fast, minus Suns. (when fast forbidden)

                    2' Actually adds up to 36

               b. Final week before Pass. part of 6 wks, but distinct

                    1' More solemn

                    2' Therefore fasting more serious

          6. Late 4th c. Alexandria:

               a. Six wk season of fasting, minus Sundays

               b. Two day separation w/o fast (= Sat & Palm Sun)

               c. Paschal fast six days before Passover

               d. i.e., Distinction made between Lent & Holy Week

               e. These titles not in place yet

               f. But 40 days includes Holy Week as season of fasting

          7. Late 4th c. Jerusalem:

               a. Eight wks of fasting = 40 days, minus Sats. & Suns.

               b. Six days prior to Pascha called "Great Week"

               c. Specific liturgies for each day

               d. Related to specific places of commemoration

               e. Proc. w/palms on Sun., although not part of "Great Week"

               f. Helped along by Christian tolerance under Constantine

               g. Pilgrims to Holy Land brought & took back litg'l exper.

               h. Helped to unify liturgical observ. across whole ch.

          8. First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, 325 AD

               a. Called by Constantine

               b. Prohibited kneeling during 50 days following Pascha

               c. Established 40 day pre-Paschal fast for whole church

                    1' 40 days left ambiguous by Nicea

                    2' Applied differently across church

 

     F. Nature of the fast in early church:

          1. One meal per day, eaten toward evening

          2. Fleshy meats, fish, eggs, milk products avoided

          3. Later trad. drops milk products, eggs, fish from fast

 

     G. Develop't of 40 day fast not universally assoc. w/Jesus' fast

          1. Bp. Athanasius assoc. w/fasts of Moses, David, Daniel

          2. Universal assoc. w/ Jesus comes after 5th c.

          3. Earliest name for season: "Quadragesima"

               a. Latin = 40th

               b. Also refers to Sunday which begins season = 40th day

          4. By 5th c: many began Lenten fast on Wed. before Quad. Sun.

               a. Gospel assigned for day same as today:
                    "Do not fast like the hypocrites" Mt.6.16

               b. Wed & Fri were traditional fast days from 1st c

          5. Precision of 40 day Lent not estab. till 7th c. in west

               a. Season does not include Sundays

               b. Begins with Ash Wed.

 

V. Use of ashes linked to history of public penance

     A. Reinstatement of lapsed Chrns major problem in early church

               1. Resulted from persecutions

               2. Many denied Christ under pressure/torture

               3. Later wished to repent, be reinstated

 

     B. Required as much as 3 yrs public penance in some places

          1. 40 days in 3d c. Alexandria - may or may not be Lent

          2. Assoc. w/Jesus 40 day fast in wilderness = wrestle w/devil

          3. Includes fasting and rigorous self examination/reflection

          4. Likely also works of love

 

     C. Early 5th c: Reinstatement occurs on Thu. in Holy Week

          1. Likely to allow full participation in Chrn. Passover

          2. Presumes penance during Lent

          3. Enrollment on Wed. before Quadragesima in Turin

 

     D. Ashes had been a sign of penitence from OT times

          1. Don't find specific use until 6th c in Western Europe:

               a. Sign of cross w/ashes = admission to public penance

               b. Not assoc. with particular liturgical time

          2. 10th c: First clear assoc. w/ Wed. before Quadragesima

          3. All faithful participating in this by 11th c.

          4. Name of Ash Wed. occurs even later

 

VI. Baptismal practice has some impact on shape of season

     A. From 1st c., links made betw. baptism & Christ's dying/rising

          1. cf. Rom.6.1f

          2. Gradually Passover vigil becomes suggested time for baptism

          3. By 3rd c., vigil is predominant time for bapt.

 

     B. Time of catechesis gradually lengthens

          1. Extended period by end of 1st c. (Didache) - unspecified

          2. By 3d c., catechumenate = 3 years (Apost. Trad.)

 

     C. Final period before bapt. at vigil set aside as special

          1. Enrollment of candidates at Epiphany

          2. Instruction intensifies

          3. Whole community asked to fast with candidates

          4. Candidates examined for life of purity - incl. exorcisms

          5. Good works, acts of charity emphasized

 

     D. Rise of infant bapt. after 4th c. eliminates prebapt catechesis

          1. Earlier emph. on works of love, pen. remain assoc. w/Lent

          2. All faithful participate

 

VII. Thus, Lent today is composite of

     A. Ancient preparatory fast before Passover

     B. Public penance practice preceding reinstatement for Passover

     C. Pre-baptismal emph. on purity of life, works of love

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