Lent: The 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday until Easter observed by Christians as a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter.
[Middle English lenten, lente, spring, Lent, from Old English lencten. See del-1 in Indo-European Roots.]
Lento: [It.] (Mus.) Slow; in slow time; slowly; — rarely written lente.
These two words have had a connection in my head for a long time. In my youth (ah dissolate youth!) I assumed they were linguistically related. Because, you see, they do go together.
Lent is a long, slow time of year. There are two periods of waiting in the Christian calendar. The first is Advent, in anticipation of Christmas. In Advent, there is music and sound and anticipation. We look forward to the birth of our savior, and to Christmas trees and presents and colors and lights. We have shopping and baking and cleaning to do, and cards to write to our loved ones. Christmas comes all too soon (or too long if under the age of 12), and every day of Advent is delightful.
Lent is the second. Advent lasts for 4 Sundays. Lent lasts for 40 days (not counting Sundays). In Lent, we anticipate the betrayal, beating, humiliation and death of our savior — the man whose babyhood we celebrated a few short months ago. We look forward to a quick change of fortunes, to a friendship sold for silver, and to an abandonment of our God in human form by those who loved him most. Where Advent goes by with the snap of a sap-pocket in a cheery pine fire, Lent is like gradual erosion of mountains of dirty snow.
The end of the Lenten story, though, is the one that makes both Christmas and Easter meaningful and worthwhile. After the humiliation, after death, after despair, after the end of hope, Jesus rose up from the dead. I really think that we forget how surprising — how shocking! a conclusion to the story that is. Imagine if JFK had come out of his final repose, cured of his gunshot wound, three days after that day on the grassy knoll? If Martin Luther King JR. had bestirred his cold body after three days in a coffin? If Lincoln, three days after the theater and the botched surgery, rose up to tell us that not only had he given us guidance during the days of his natural life, that now he was immortal and would be with us always. Jesus’ disciples probably hoped that he would be a political leader (see James and John, sons of Zebedee, sucking up to him the week before holy week hoping for what they probably thought would be material power), but his messiah-hood far surpassed just a political solution for Jews under the thumb of the Romans. It was a promise to all humanity that death itself is not final.
Lent anticipates this, but it focuses not on the triumphant celebration over death at Easter — it focuses on the nastiness of getting there. Being raised from the dead didn’t make dying on a cross any more a pleasant experience. Nor did it help as Jesus was paraded and mocked with his crown of thorns. These were very real and very painful experiences, for a man whom we believe to be God. And in Lent, we think about the love it took for him to do that for us.
The music of Lent is slow and mournful. Lento. Contemplative. The 40 days stretch long, cold, and seemingly hopeless across the span of late winter and early spring. They leave a dusty taste in the mouth, with a touch of New England despair that the flowers will never come, and the countryside will never again be green and verdant. But our dispair is misplaced. Spring does come, against all fears. And God does rise up from the dead, against all expectation.