Over the past few years, we have intentionally devoted more attention to the church calendar and especially to Lent. Since that time, we have had several people ask, “What is lent?” Here are some thoughts!
Lent is the period of 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter where Christ followers invest themselves in prayer, repentance, fasting and other spiritual disciplines. The thought is that just as Christ sacrificed his life for us, so we, through these disciplines, are encouraged to sacrifice ourselves during this time so that we may grow in grace. And while Lent is neither mentioned nor commanded in the Bible, we believe it is a beneficial tool that, when approached by faith, can spur us on to greater worship and understanding. And who knows, we may even learn to love our Lenten celebration. After all, Advent is not mentioned in the Bible, but we all love our celebration of Advent.
Why are there 40 days of Lent?
The actual word, Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten” meaning, “lengthening days” since the days of Lent lengthen as they move closer to Easter. According to the early church, these lengthening days were to be spent in “narrowing.” They were to be spent in fasting. Early in the history of the church, it was believed the best time to baptize someone was on Easter Sunday; and so all new converts had to wait until Easter to be baptized. And as Easter approached, these converts underwent a time of preparation so they would be able to grasp all that was being required of them as disciples of Jesus. Therefore, they were encouraged to spend a few days in fasting so that they could invest themselves in repentance and prayer. What began as a two- or three-day rite of passage for new converts soon grew into a 40-day spiritual discipline for all believers. But why 40 days? –Because after his baptism, Jesus went out into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days as an act of preparation and (renewed) commitment to the Father. And at Lent we follow his example.
Has Lent always been the practice of the church?
Our first recorded mention of the church’s practice of Lent is found in some writings from the Council of Nicea (AD 325). But shortly after that, Athanasius (the bishop who single-handedly saved the church from heresy and whose famous quote, “Then it is Athanasius against the world!” is still applauded in church history classes around the world) urged people to observe the 40-day fast that “all the world was observing.” And as a result, the church observed Lent for the next 11 centuries. But as with many things, over time it slipped into error. And by the time of the Reformation, Lent was fraught with superstition, misunderstanding and abuse. And so the reformers threw the baby out with the bathwater and abolished the practice. Today, many churches are trying to regain a proper perspective on Lent, free from error and fear. We understand that Lent is not about giving things up for God or doing things to earn God’s blessing or even about doing without some thing. It is about slowing down, engaging in times of reflection, investing in focusing on what is most important in life, and seeking to draw near to God. And if the spiritual disciplines involved in Lent can help us do that, then no one would object to its practice!
But isn’t Lent longer than 40 days?
If you count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, you realize that Lent lasts 6 ½ weeks. That’s a bit more than the 40 days we talked about earlier! That’s because the church sees two different types of days during Lent, days of fasting and Sundays. Days of fasting are Monday through Saturday where we focus on prayer, repentance and seeking God. Ash Wednesday begins Lent and sets the course for how we are to view these six days with a day of repentance (remember in the Old Testament where people would show their repentance by covering themselves with sackcloth and ashes!?). But Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday; and therefore, all Sundays, even those during Lent, should be days of celebration, not sorrow. And so we see all Sundays as “little Easters,” and who can fast on Easter Sunday? As a result, it requires 6 ½ weeks to accomplish the 40 days of Lent (think of it as a tithe of time, roughly one-tenth of the year). Here’s what Easter says: Christ has risen! Let all days of fasting and sorrow cease. Let all mourning end for life has conquered death and love and joy floods over the earth. That’s the true meaning of Lent, to move from repentance and sorrow to joy in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.