What about this thing called Lent?

“What is this thing called Lent, and why should I care?”

This coming Wednesday, February 18, marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. Many Christians, especially those raised in Evangelical and / or Reformed homes, are often unfamiliar with this season of the church year. What is it and why observe it all? Below is an article written by the Rev. Steve Wilkins of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, LA some years ago (with a few historical references that I added at some point). It serves as a good introduction about this season of the church year. It’s fairly long for a blog post, but worth the investment.

Some Information about the Season of Lent

Most Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter (or Resurrection Sunday, but every Sunday celebrates Christ’s resurrection) and the feasts that follow these two major celebrations, Epiphany and Pentecost. But Lent is often looked upon with suspicion. It seems that the only reasons we hear for observing it are wrong reasons (e.g., we should give up meat to honor the animals who provide so much food for us gluttonous Americans; therefore we all ought to observe Lent by eating celery for forty days and saving a cow’s life). And if it’s not something really dumb, the reason seems to center around unbiblical thoughts of atoning for our sins by acts of self-denial. Our bulletins at CPC have for years told us when we are in the “Lenten Season” or “Season of Lent.” But what is Lent? Are there any good reasons and purposes for this season? This article aims to provide some positive answers to such inquiries. (And please be sure to note point 1 on the next page.)

The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon lencten which means “spring” (the season of the year). However, its reference was gradually limited to mean the season of preparation for Easter that does, in fact, occur in spring in the northern hemisphere. How did this word come to be connected with Easter

Early on in the church’s history, part of preparing for baptism would include fasting. The first century work known as the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve) states:  “Prior to baptism, both he who is baptizing and he who is being baptized should fast, along with any others who can.” Justin Martyr wrote in the second century:  “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and entreat God with fasting … while we pray and fast with them.” Thus there was a community involvement in confessing and repenting of sin and calling to die to sin. In the meantime, Easter itself became associated with the baptism and reception of converts into the church. (Think of baptism as related to dying to sin and rising to live to God. By the way, there are still some churches that make a point of baptizing new believers or infants on Easter Sunday.) Thus there was something of a melding of preparation for baptism and preparation for Easter. In reflecting on the life of Christ through the church year, what comes before our Savior’s resurrection? The road to Jerusalem and our Savior’s suffering on the cross. The Lenten Season thus became a time of reflection upon Christ’s suffering. Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. AD 140-202) speaks of a forty-hour preparation for Easter. The first reference to Lent as a period of forty days’ preparation occurs in the teachings of the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Forty days is a reflection of the Scripture’s record of trials and periods of fasting, such as Moses’ forty days on Sinai, Elijah’s forty-day journey to the same mountain, and Christ’s forty-day fast in the wilderness and temptation by Satan.

Thus this time before Easter came to be a time for self-examination, and not just for baptismal candidates. It is a time when we recall that our sins made the sufferings and death of Jesus necessary. It is a time when we as God’s people give special attention to repentance by confessing our sins and devoting ourselves to renewed obedience. (By the way, you may be interested to know that Advent once marked the closing season of the church year and focused on the second coming of Christ and the final judgment. Advent, like Lent, was observed with prayer and fasting. Advent has changed, is now most often celebrated as the beginning of the church year, and has become a prolonged run-up for Christmas, which leaves the church calendar without a time of reflecting on Christ’s second coming and Christmastide something of a let-down. But lectionary readings often contain passages that speak to Christ’s return and the judgment to follow, which are not very popular in our modern American church environment.)

But you may ask, “Why do we need Lent to examine ourselves and repent? Aren’t we supposed to do that year round?” Of course, we should repent of our sins and seek spiritual growth at all times, not just during this season. But I could ask the same question in regard to Christmas or Easter. Why have a special season to focus upon the incarnation or the resurrection? Shouldn’t we remember the incarnation and the resurrection every day? Sure we should. But Christmas and Easter give us the opportunity to focus upon these amazing realities and celebrate them. They call us to meditate upon the glory of God becoming man and breaking the power of sin and death – and thus, they help us to remember them every day. Lent does a similar thing. It gives us a stated season, a formal structure for all of us to examine ourselves and repent of our sins as individuals and as a church. Lent underscores for us the importance of dealing with our sins so that we don’t ignore them the rest of the year. And it gives us an occasion to do this together, in communion.

Lent, therefore, is a time for focusing upon our sins, a time for asking questions about our spiritual health: What are my besetting sins, and how can I work and pray for change? What idols have captured my imagination so that my love for the living God has grown cold? In what ways is my devotion to Christ and his church less than wholehearted? The Lenten season is like an annual physical. It’s an annual checkup on the well-being of our hearts and lives.

This is why fasting and an intensified practice of prayer have always been key spiritual disciplines during Lent. By abstaining from food, we are reminded that by nature we deserve no good thing; indeed, we are reminded that we deserve death. Fasting enables us to remember that we stand by grace, and it enables us to appreciate the good things God gives us even more. Fasting also reminds us that the good things God gives are in fact gifts from him – things we should enjoy and give thanks for, but never worship. Fasting encourages us to turn away from idols – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – by focusing us upon the One who gives us all things richly to enjoy.

Of course, none of this is magical or automatic. Fasting and prayer are not to be done because they somehow merit God’s favor. They don’t. Lent, like all the other ritualistic activities we do in life (think of rituals in worship), can be dangerous. We need to be careful to avoid the problems of a wrong understanding and wrong use of this season.

1. Remember that though seasons of preparation and fasting may be useful, observing Lent is completely a matter of freedom for Christians. Lent doesn’t make a participant automatically more holy or pleasing in God’s sight than a non-participant (nor should the non-participant think himself superior to the participant).

2. Remember that spiritual disciplines like fasting do not subdue the flesh in themselves. That which enables us to die to sin and sinful desires is the Word and Spirit of Christ.

3. Remember that the point of Lent is not to give up pleasures for a brief season but to give up sin always. Some get all caught up in giving up chocolate or steak for Lent. But the point of Lent is to give up false idols as we reflect on Christ’s suffering for us. Just as it’s easier to write a check than it is to spend time in actually showing mercy, so it’s far easier to give up a steak than it is to avoid sinful anger or to break off your lusts. The point of Lent is not to give up chocolate; the point is to turn away from sin and grow in holiness.

4. As we go through the Lenten Season, we need to remember the goal of the season. It is not to be morose and sad or sinfully introspective. Rather, it is to be enabled to see the greatness of God’s grace and mercy toward us so that we are stirred to walk even more faithfully. Just as a time of sickness enables us to appreciate the days of health that we enjoy and just as the loss of a friend or loved one enables us to appreciate our remaining friends and family even more – so, too, Lent should enable us to rejoice all the more in the work of our Savior in suffering and dying and rising again for our sakes. Lent is like a journey, but the end of the journey is not at the cross on Good Friday but at the empty tomb on Easter. Because we are united by the Holy Spirit to the resurrected Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, we can face our own sins and weaknesses with faith and hope. In Jesus we know that we are forgiven and accepted by God, and we have hope for real healing and transformation in our lives. And that in the end is the value of observing a season of repentance.

This article is taken in large part from an article written by Pastor Steve Wilkins, minister at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (CREC) in Monroe, LA, lightly supplemented with historical data and other slight changes by Pastor Mike. The Season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday which falls on this coming Wednesday, February 18. Easter is celebrated on April 5 this year. The forty days of Lent are from February 18 through April 4. Sundays are not counted, as they are always – even during Lent – celebrations of Christ’s resurrection.