I have a friend in the United Methodist Church who is taking Lent very seriously. Do you have background on Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday since the Reformation and their beginnings? Are they biblical, or just preferences and church practices?
Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting and spiritual preparation preceding Easter Sunday on the liturgical calendar. Our word "lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon words "lencten" and "lenctentid" meaning "spring" and "springtime," respectively. There is good evidence that the early church observed a time of preparation in anticipation of Easter Sunday. Irenaeus, a early third century elder and bishop in Lyon, France, wrote to Rome about a dispute regarding Lenten practice. He wrote, "Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their 'day' last forty hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers" [Eusebius, History of the Church, Book 5, ch. 24]. (Notice that he did not say "some think that we should not fast at all.") When this passage was later translated from Greek into Latin, the punctuation made it seem like the meaning of the Greek had been "twenty-four hours a day for forty days." This mistranslation seems to be the origin of a fast of forty days connected to Lent. At the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), the council that ratified the Nicene Creed, "forty days of Lent" was recognized as a regular part of the church calendar around which they would schedule church synods.

The significance of the number forty in Scripture is hard to overstate. It was the number of days that Noah was in the ark, the number of days Moses fasted on Sinai while receiving the Ten Commandments, and of course the number of days Jesus fasted in the wilderness in preparation for His public ministry. Thus it is an appropriate choice for the number of days of preparation prior to the celebration of Easter. However, scripture does not require forty days of fasting in preparation for Easter, and Irenaeus seems to indicate that there existed a great diversity of practice in the early church. The Catholic Encyclopedia indicates that this was probably because the early church celebrated the Resurrection of Christ on a weekly basis in their Sunday gathering.

Ash Wednesday is the traditional day that the season of Lent begins. It is called Ash Wednesday because of the ashes that are part of the worship service on that day. In the Bible, people often donned sackcloth and covered themselves with ashes as a way of signifying grief, and often that grief was over their own sins. Thus, ashes were also a sign of repentance of sins. Jeremiah calls for the people to "roll in the ashes" (Jer. 6:26) to show their repentance. Daniel, "in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes," pleaded with God for Israel. And of course, when the people of Nineveh listened to Jonah, they put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance.

Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday, is the celebration of the day in which Jesus instituted the Lords Supper, the night on which he washed the disciples feet and was betrayed.

Answer by Matt Gross

Matthew Gross received his masters degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, in 2004 and was the weekly editor of Reformed Perspectives Magazine.