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The approach of the Lenten season brings a furrow to the evangelical brow. What are we to do with it? For congregations that follow the church year there is no problem: Christians will do what they have always done. They will use Lent as a time for taking spiritual inventory. Many non-liturgical churches, by contrast, consider the forty days before Easter to be no holier than any other time of year. For them an Ash Wednesday service is simply a Wednesday-night prayer meeting.

The word "Lent" itself doesn't help us much. It is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to lengthen" and refers to a season when the days become longer, i.e., spring. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the number forty was "evidently suggested by the forty days' fasts of Moses, Elijah, and especially our Lord himself."

Since the fourth century A.D. the Church has generally observed Lent as a time of fasting, of inner examination, of abstaining from festivities, of alms-giving, and of more strict attendance at worship. The first break in Lenten observance in Europe may have occurred in 1522 when Ulrich Zwingli sided with certain Zurich printers who insisted they had to have something more invigorating to eat than fish on Fridays to carry out their duties. In the years since, dispensations have gradually eroded the discipline of the holy season in the traditional churches. Virtually all dietary requirements have been lifted in quite recent times. At the same time pre-Lenten festivals such as the Mardi Gras have turned into bacchanals that have become a reproach to civilization.

So what do we do? Observe Lent or ignore it? Follow the disciplines or celebrate our Reformation heritage by doing what we please-including staying at home ...

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