In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is proper to Lent as a season in the Church Year? It seems like every year there are people on social media telling others what they should do and not do for Lent. Non-Lutheran Protestants have arguments about whether it’s appropriate even to celebrate Lent at all, because the Lord’s Day is the only important day. So they generally do not observe the Church Year at all, except for maybe Christmas and Easter. Others argue that Lent is just left-over Roman Catholicism and would ditch it for that reason. As with every other thing that humans do, there’s a mixture of human tradition and differing degrees of importance that people attach to various observances.
It’s a good time for us to be reminded that human traditions are not bad in themselves. We all have human traditions. Every church has human traditions. The question is whether those human traditions help to point us to Jesus and His Word, or whether they detract from what Jesus tells us. Though new is generally bad when it comes to the Church, the age of a tradition doesn’t always help us. There are traditions that go back hundreds of years that actually—now, at least—work against the Gospel.
Lent is an old tradition. A time of repentant preparation for celebrating the resurrection of Jesus goes back to at least the second century. And by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, there was common observance of 40 days of fasting prior to Easter. But it seems that Lent as a season (the word actually means just “spring”) grew out of the Friday fast in preparation for the weekly celebration of the resurrection on Sunday. When Christians started setting a period of repentance prior to Easter, the number of days varied, the amount of fasting varied, even the date of Easter changed. So while Christians in the West, including Rome, the Anglican Church, and the Lutheran Church, now observe Lent for 40 days, Christians know that the traditions of Lent must, above everything else, point us to Jesus, crucified and resurrected for us. Where they do that, the traditions should be retained. Where they do not, the traditions ought to be discarded.
Where do we turn for the purpose of our observance of Lent? Well, like we did during Advent, we’re going to look at the Proper Preface for Lent in order to think about what is proper to Lent, what Lent should do and what it is for. The Proper Preface for Lent, which we hear in the Divine Service, says this: “It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who overcame the assaults of the devil and gave His life as a ransom for many that with cleansed hearts we might be prepared joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast in sincerity and truth.” We’ll talk about those different phrases in the weeks to come, but we should keep in mind throughout the whole season the main point: that we would be prepared joyfully to celebrate the paschal feast—that is, our Lord’s Passover from death to life for us—in sincerity and truth, and not in pretense or falsehood.