I wasn’t planning on changing my “prayer desk” setup until Lent actually began, but I ran out of taper candles and forgot to buy more, and forgot to get them on my wife’s shopping list, so I’ve been carrying on without the center candle in a sort of pre-Lenten spirit.
Back in the day, when Christians really took fasting seriously, Lent would be such an intense time that it had to be worked up to in stages. Thus a sort of pre-Lent season came into being. While most modern liturgical calendars don’t have them anymore, some older editions of the Book of Common Prayer, for example, do mention the three weeks of Septuagissima, Sexagessima, and Quintagessima.
Today, the formal observance of a pre-Lent season only shows up in the odd church or small denomination that continues to use an older calendar or prayer book – I believe the East Orthodox churches have something akin to this, and certain traditional Anglican groups do as well. For the rest of us, the most we do is start talking about Lent and planning and preparing for it a couple weeks in advance. Most of us don’t fast so profoundly that we have to work our eating habits down to it step by step, though I suspect more people should give it a try at some point in their lives… one can never surmise the spiritual fruit of something without really giving it an honest try (or several tries).
History and tradition aside, I decided not to replace that center candle as a visual reminder that Lent is coming. It’s a subtle change, for sure, but it’s just noticeable enough for me. In a small group setting, I’d probably do something more to denote a pre-Lent spirit, and a larger congregational context the change would have to be even more pronounced to be noticeable. But as Jesus said, he who is faithful with a few things can be entrusted with many. If I can learn how to express faith and spirituality on a small scale like this, God will help me work up toward the larger-scale things at the parish level.