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Wednesday this week starts the 40-day period of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday

INDEPENDENT FILE PHOTO - Will RobertsonFeb. 14 is kind of an interesting day this year. Of course most people identify that day as St. Valentine's Day, a day celebrated by couples across our nation with flowers and candy. But this year, Feb. 14 is also Ash Wednesday, the first day of the church season called Lent.

Merriam-Webster.com tells us that the term Lent comes from the Middle English word "lente," which means springtime (even though Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent always happens in winter). Lent is a 40-day period of fasting, self-denial and self-inspection, designed to help Christians to prepare their hearts for the celebration of Easter Sunday.

Interestingly, if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, you will actually count 46 days. That is because, even during Lent, Sundays are never considered as fast days, but as days of celebration. So the 40 days of Lent self-denial do not include Sundays.

Since the self-denial of Lent often includes fasting from certain foods, especially rich baked goods, sometime in the Middle Ages people began celebrating the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday as Mardi Gras, French for "Fat Tuesday." On that Tuesday, it became popular to overindulge in anticipation of the fasting that would follow. So cooks and bakers made tons of rich baked goods, using up all of the fat that they wouldn't need for the next six-and-a-half weeks. Fat Tuesday.

Of course, as many things do, Mardi Gras has now expanded to fill several days before Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, the Mardi Gras events begin on Jan. 7, the day after Epiphany. And the kinds of celebrations have expanded too. Instead of just feasting on food in anticipation of the upcoming fast, many now indulge in all kinds of excesses, some figuring that they will just repent on Ash Wednesday, and some, of course, simply using the occasion as an opportunity to indulge.

Even though most Protestant churches do not formally observe Ash Wednesday or the season of Lent, and I belong to a denomination that does not, I believe that these times of observance are very important for all Christians to incorporate into their lives. I'm not talking about Fat Tuesday or any of the things that have become associated with that today. I'm talking about the whole idea of rhythm in our faith walk.

As Christians, we understand that Easter is far more than just an observance of spring and new life. Easter began as a celebration of the physical resurrection of Jesus, who had been crucified to pay for the sins of the world, not only performing the greatest miracle in history, but also proving that his death really had been effective in providing forgiveness for anyone who would repent and believe. He appeared many times to his followers over the following 40 days, absolutely convincing them beyond all doubt that he really was alive again.

That's a lot for anyone to really digest. So during the season of Lent, it is a good thing for us to pull back from our indulgences and our distractions, to deny ourselves a bit, and to make time to ponder this amazing miracle of the ages and how it impacts us. Then, when Holy Week comes, beginning this year on March 25 with Palm Sunday, we will be spiritually prepared to enter into the mystery of Jesus' self-sacrifice on our behalf. And when the sun comes up on Easter Sunday morning, we will be spiritually prepared to enter into the joyful reality of the resurrection.

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