As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Luke 9:51 NLT
Lenten materials arrived in my church mailbox. They included scripture references. I wondered which New Testament passages would explain Lent. Not finding any, I started asking questions and doing some research. The passage above helped me raise questions.
In the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the common language instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted for the period before Easter. This word initially simply meant spring (as in German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen. The original Greek term for the period is tessarakoste, for the “fortieth day” before Easter. This form is preserved for the period in Romance, Slavic and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima). Depending on the tradition the 40 days are calculated in different ways. Sundays are skipped in the Roman Catholic tradition because they are “mini-Easters.” Some have connected the fasting of Lent to an imitation of Jesus time in the wilderness (which would end possibly about the beginning of Lent). Later, Lent “floated” to connect with “Holy Week” observances. The roots of Lenten observance are believed by some to extend back nearly to the time of the apostles. It is interesting to note that observation of Lent became part of expected religious observance after Christianity became the official religion of the empire.
Traditionally, church guidelines for Lent include prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In addition, some people feel experiencing suffering during this time is important. This takes the form of not eating a favorite food, for instance. (!) We know Jesus spent time in meditation and prayer. Luke tells us that he went out to pray “a long time before day”. Other places we are told of Jesus fasting. No specific mention of meditation is made but the words of Jesus various places, esp. John 14-17 suggest that times of meditation preceded the talks/prayer. Jesus gave up material goods and comforts even before the days leading to his death. This is made clear by his words to the prospective follower: “Birds have nests and rabbits their hole, but the son of man has no where to lay his head.” I would affirm the blessing of these spiritual disciplines, not just for a period in the spring, but throughout the year.
Questions from my study
The question being asked is what is the nature of what Jesus did during his last days: forty-five to fifty days of Lent or the eighty days to the ascension? I wondered why in the nearly fifty years that I had been a Christian I had never heard this question. (I think during the first part of that period we had revivals, rather than Lenten observances.) An internet search revealed that I could order an “I gave up Jesus for lent” T-shirt but little more. Since the Mennonite Church emphasizes following Jesus’ example, it seemed appropriate to review the practice of Lent in light of that focus. Many questions have come to me as I reflected on Jesus activities during his last 45/80 days. What questions would you ask?
Luke 9:51 marks the beginning of Jesus last days on earth, those associated with Lent, Easter and the Ascension. Some see the transfiguration in Luke 9:28ff as the beginning of this period. There are very few indicators of time elapsed in these chapters. The NT writers are fond of the number 40, so it is surprising that Luke does not mention forty days (or 45 if weekends are included) or some time period. (Articles referenced below on the origins of Lent do not refer to Luke 9:51 and what Jesus did during his last days on earth.)
Last days’ activities
What did Jesus do during those last days before his death as he anticipated his ascension? He clearly had a sense that this was a crucial time in his ministry. How did the pressure of his coming death and ascension influence his activities? Surely the activities of Luke 9 through Luke 22 arose out of Jesus declaration in his first sermon (Luke 4). Beyond that, Jesus, I believe, was preparing the way for continuation of kingdom work. He began a new phase outreach by sending out seventy of his followers (chapter 10) to announce the coming of the kingdom. Once ascended, he would reign and provide intercession for his followers as they lived as they were created to live. During the last days of his life, didn’t he continue to do what he announced what he would do? What indications are there that he simply prepared for his death? (Of course, he prepared for his death or the manner of his death at Gethsemane.) Just before the ascension declaration in 9:51, Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then raised from the dead. Did he change what he was doing under the threats from religious and political leaders? To what extent is it true that the way he lived led to the cross; to the tomb; from the tomb to his exaltation as King? Was this why Jesus came, to draw people to God, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven? to be acknowledged as king in the kingdom of God?
Much of the Christian church uses the period before Passion Week to anticipate Jesus death. Jesus, according to Luke, “As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” The question I am asking: what does one do about the disconnect?
What does this suggest we should do to honor Jesus last days on earth? Perhaps we should see the last days as he did. We should be announcing the kingdom, doing the works of the kingdom, accepting the consequences of kingdom work and recognizing the vindication by God of what has been done through Jesus’ giving himself. Then, praising God for raising Jesus to his right hand to be our intercessor. I will be posting a list of readings from Luke 9:51 through Luke 24. Later I will add scripture from Acts and other sources for the period leading up to the ascension.