Focus of the Season. The weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday traditionally have been a period of sober reflection, penance and preparation, looking forward to the climatic event in the history of salvation, the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
History of the Season. The historic English name for this season is Lent, which is completely non-descriptive and simply means “spring season.” In languages other than English, the season is typically described either by its length (e.g. Latin, “Quadragesima” or Greek, “Sarakosti” which both come from the word for “fortieth,” referring to a period of 40 days) or by the practice of fasting associated with it (e.g. “The Great Fast” as in Arabic and Russian). The modern practice of “giving something up for Lent” is but a faint—and in many ways, unserious—reflection of what historically has been a much more rigorous period of material abstinence and spiritual exercise. Although there is no real antecedent for such a season in Scripture, the idea of a preparatory period before Resurrection Sunday came into being in the early church because, unlike today, baptisms into the church and the Christian faith were not done whenever was convenient for the individual or for the parents (with regard to children), but were done only at a handful of times in the year, Resurrection Sunday being chief among these. The preparation, therefore, was preparatory to baptism, and the reflection was a matter of coming to reckon with who God is, one’s own sinfulness, and one’s need for salvation. Such reflection need not be limited to only one season in a year, but having such a such period that is consistent from year to year does has utility as a spiritual discipline.
In the interest of finding a term more descriptive than “Lent,” and since Reformed Protestants do not observe days of liturgical fasting or feasting because of their understanding of the Regulative Principle of Scripture, and I have chosen in this reading plan to call the season “Desertide.” The desert (really, the Wilderness) has always been a place of testing and meeting God and there are echoes of this throughout Scripture. It was there where God commissioned Moses (Exod. 3:1-4:17), where He brought Israel to after the Exodus and where they wandered for forty years before entering the Promised Land (Exod. 14 through Deut. 34). It was to the wilderness that David fled in his confrontation with Saul (1 Sam. 21-26) and, similarly, where Elijah fled after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:1-18). Israel’s later Exile to Babylon was tantamount to a second wilderness wandering (Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel). From the wilderness John the Baptist called the nation to repentance (Matt. 3:1-12 || Mark 1:2-6 || Luke 3:3-6). Most importantly, our Lord stayed in the wilderness for forty days resisting the Devil’s temptations (Matt. 4:1-11 || Mark 1:12-13 || Luke 4:1-8). And subsequently, it was the area to which the Apostle Paul went for three years after he accepted Christ as Lord on the road to Damascus (Gal. 1:17-18).
The definition of the season in calendar terms was very much bound up with a prominent controversy in the early Church over when to observe Resurrection Sunday (Easter). The Gospels tie Resurrection Sunday to the events surrounding Passover, when God passed over the Israelites in executing judgment on Egypt, just before the Exodus. In the Gospel narratives, Jesus was crucified on a Friday, on or the day before the Passover (depending on the Gospel narrative) and was resurrected on a Sunday. Sunday subsequently became the Christian Sabbath. The Jewish Passover is always on 14th of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year, but the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning that each month begins with the New Moon. Because of this, the day moves around on our solar calendars. Some in the church, mostly in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, preferred to keep Easter on the same day as the Passover, regardless of when that happened to occur in the week, whereas in the western part of the Empire, the preference was to keep it always on a Sunday, which would be consistent with a Sabbath observance. The difference in views meant that when some Christians in the Empire were celebrating Christ’s resurrection, others were still mourning his crucifixion. The friction this discrepancy created within the church was exacerbated by the persecutions Christians faced at the time. Many Christians identified the Jews with their persecutors, either because of local situations or out of historical identification with the Scriptural texts. This created an incentive for separating out the observance of Easter from that of Passover. The disagreements became quite strong and were only resolved at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, with the formula that Easter would be observed on the first Sunday after the first New Moon after the Spring Equinox. This means that Easter varies between 22 March and 25 April in any given year.
Early Christians settled on a period of 40 days for the period before Easter, because the number 40 is Scripturally tied to the major acts of salvation. The rains of Flood in Noah’s time lasted 40 days (Gen. 7:17), Moses was on Mount Sinai with God for 40 days (Exod. 24:18, 34:28), the spies explored the land of Canaan for that period of time (Num. 13:25), and Elijah travelled to Sinai for that time before his confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:8). Christ Himself was in the wilderness experiencing temptation for 40 days (Matt. 4:2), and after His resurrection, made appearances for that length of time until His ascension to the Father (Acts 1:3). Because Sundays were considered feast days and not fast days, they were exempted from the count of forty days for the season before Easter, which is why in the Roman church the season begins on a Wednesday. In the Eastern Church, the Paschal sequence begins an even seven weeks before Easter. Before Vatican II, even the Roman church observed Quinquagesima (49 days before Easter, Sundays included). This lectionary also holds to a seven week long period for Desertide, but to make the level of readings manageable, separates out the week commemorating Jesus’s passion into a separate set of readings for Passion Week.