The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has recorded a video message to mark the beginning of Lent, the period 40 days immediately preceding Easter.
The full transcript of the video is below:
In the earliest centuries of the Church, newcomers to the Christian community were baptised at Easter. It seemed to be the obvious time to do it – Easter, the conquest of death, the beginning of new life – and so it was that it came to be the common practice for bishops, particularly, to baptise and anoint new believers at that great feast. But of course, believers had to be prepared for this event, prepared by instruction, and prayer, and self-denial. It was believed that self-denial; fasting and extra prayer was something that, as it were, limbered you up, rather like doing exercises for some great race. It made you more spiritually mobile and agile. And so that period of preparation for baptism came to be associated with fasting, with prayer and with self-denial.
That's how Lent began. A period where people were thinking about baptism, about the beginning of new life, whether literally as new converts to Christianity or – for the rest of the church – people wanting to renew that sense of commitment. And still, on Easter Eve, at this day people will renew their baptismal promises in a solemn service in church.
But that also became associated very early on with the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying and discovering what God was asking of him. In the Gospels we're told that Jesus goes straight from his own baptism into the desert to confront the Devil and to overcome temptation. And that forty days in the desert became a great image that controlled the sense of the pre-Easter fast, that pre-Easter preparation.
During this period, it became more and more common for churches to strip away some of the decoration, to make themselves look a bit simpler, a kind of outward manifestation of the inner stripping and the inner austerity that was going on.
In the middle ages, in many English churches, the hangings and the decorations in church were replaced with hangings of very coarse cloth – sack cloth. People would sometimes wear sack cloth and the beginning of Lent was marked by a ceremony where ash was placed on people's heads in memory of their mortality – Ash Wednesday.
In general, the colour used during Lent for vestments and hangings - if it wasn't the use of old and shabby cloth – the colour would be purple, a sombre colour associated with judgement.
But it's important to remember that the word 'Lent' itself comes from the old English word for 'spring'. It's not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it's not about making yourself miserable for forty days; it's not even about giving things up for forty days. Lent is springtime. It's preparing for that great climax of springtime which is Easter – new life bursting through death. And as we prepare ourselves for Easter during these days, by prayer and by self-denial, what motivates us and what fills the horizon is not self-denial as an end in itself but trying to sweep and clean the room of our own minds and hearts so that the new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us at Easter.