- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

The practice of Lent, which is not specifically mentioned in the Bible, has been a tradition throughout the Christian world for at least 1,650 years. The season has had a profound influence on popular culture.

This somber period of reflection, self-denial and prayer probably began as a two-day fast immediately before Easter during Christianity's earliest days, according to the Rev. Richard Bucher, pastor of Evangelical Trinity Lutheran Church in Clinton, Mass.

The word comes from the Middle English word "lente," which means "springtime" so named for the season of the year in which it usually occurs.

Mr. Bucher said Lent had two major purposes for fourth-century Christians: a time of spiritual repentance and a period of instruction and preparation for the "electi," or people who wanted to join the church.

"They were led step by step through prayer and special rites toward baptism. If they passed, they were baptized and received the Lord's Supper in a joyous service, either on Easter Eve or on Easter itself," Mr. Bucher said.

Over time, Lenten fasting became mandatory, especially abstinence from eating meat. French police, for example, were given permission in 1671 to search houses during Lent and to confiscate forbidden items of food, which were then donated to hospitals.

The word "carnival" comes from the old Italian word that literally means to "go without meat." Festivals like Mardi Gras sprang up throughout Europe as a means to prepare for the coming times of self-denial.

Ash Wednesday, when priests apply ashes in the sign of the cross on the foreheads of worshippers at the beginning of Lent, probably began around 600 A.D. Throughout the Middle Ages, ashes were sprinkled onto foreheads as a symbol of humility and repentance.

During the season, priests and altar cloths are draped in the liturgical color purple, representing sorrow for sin and repentance.

"So we also retain Lent to this day because we see it as a salutary, outward discipline that gives Christians a wonderful opportunity to seek spiritual renewal," he said.

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