The Lenten period originated in the very earliest days of the church. The 40 days was a significant number because Christ separated himself from his normal daily life in order to prepare himself for fulfilling his destiny and death upon a cross for the remission of the sins of all mankind. What better time than Lent for young people to be instructed in the catechism of their faith in preparation for baptism, confirmation or church membership on Easter morning?
By observing Lent those 40 days, the individual Christian imitates Christ’s withdrawal from the world, and in doing so, observes a period of self-denial dating back to apostolic times. The denial may be a matter of spiritual discipline rather than actual fasting. Some folks deny themselves something during the Lenten period, which they find difficult doing without, such as cigarettes, sweets or television. The small act of denial is a personal gesture of an awareness of Christ’s greater sacrifice.
The reality of the cross and the empty tomb is at the heart of the Christian faith. One can look at stained glass windows depicting Christ’s sacrifice, gaze upon a figure hanging from a cross in a church, or look at beautiful pictures in art books of the event and still not fully understand the meaning. Not until one’s inner self fathoms that love was the reason for the sacrifice, with its accompanying pain, agony and spilled blood, can one appreciate Christ’s death on the cross.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) Christ was without sin, but he gave his life for the sins of all mankind. Yet, mankind is too broad a word. When men, women and children internalize that reality and know in their hearts and can say with conviction and undeniable belief, “Christ died for me,” something happens within the individual. The unworthiness of such love is so overwhelming that the human heart breaks with gratitude, while the whole being becomes contrite amid a flood of tears.
If Christ’s death on the cross were the end of his life, then the event would simply be one of many crucifixions which took place at that time in history. But, Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, points toward Easter, the day of the resurrection. And therein answers the burning question of why Christ went to the cross. He died for all of us. He arose from the tomb and conquered death so that we might experience his saving grace, know his love and inherit life eternal.