If you're like me, you grew up in a church where Lent was a foreign word. Like most things Catholic, it was ignored if not rejected. In recent years, I have come to see the error of our ways. I am now convinced that Lent holds enormous promise for us. This ancient discipline can be a pathway to healing and hope in our fractured, fearful world.
What is Lent?
"Lent" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic word "Lencten," which means "spring." As strange as it is to our ears, it's easier than quadragesima, the Latin term for the period (meaning "forty days" or more literally, "the fortieth day"). Greeks called this season tessarakoste ("fortieth").
As its names imply, Lent is a 40 day observance that occurs each spring. (The 40-day period excludes Sundays, which are to be weekly celebrations of the Resurrection.) Why 40 days? Because Jesus fasted in the wilderness and was tempted for "forty days and forty nights" (Matthew 4:2). As he used these days to prepare for his public ministry, so we are to use them to prepare for his resurrection and to minister in his name through the rest of the year.
In addition, the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years of purification before entering their Promised Land. The world was flooded for 40 days during the time of Noah, washing away the evil that had infested it. According to tradition, Jesus' body lay 40 hours in the tomb before the Easter miracle. All these facts led early Christians to set aside 40 days before Easter for spiritual preparation and purification.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday (February 22 this year). It is always the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers' foreheads as a sign of mourning over the death which sin brings into the world. This observance reminds us of the death of Jesus and helps us realize the consequences of sin.
How was Lent practiced historically?
Lenten observance began very early, as both Irenaeus (died A.D. 202) and Tertullian (died A.D. 225) refer to it. It was originally very brief, a 40 hour fast, growing eventually to a week. By A.D. 325, the Council of Nicaea recognized 40 days of Lent.
In early centuries, Lent was observed with a strict fast. Only one meal a day was allowed, taken toward evening. Meat, fish, eggs and milk products were forbidden. Over the centuries, regulations have loosened considerably. Today many people "give up something for Lent" such as chocolate or television. Many abstain from meat on Fridays, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Lent is also a time of penance, almsgiving, abstaining from festivities, and devoting more time than usual to religious exercises. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has placed more emphasis on these aspects than on physical fasting.
Why is Lent relevant for evangelicals?
Three reasons for observing some form of Lenten practice suggest themselves, in ascending importance.
One: we need to live in community with the larger body of Christ. Since the vast majority of Christians practice some form of Lenten observance, joining them in some way is a good step toward solidarity of faith and ministry. This is also an important witness to others, answering Jesus' prayer, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me" (John 17:23).
Two: we cannot fully appreciate Jesus' resurrection unless we have experienced something of his sufferings. A fast of some sort is an appropriate means of spiritual identification with our Lord's suffering for us.
Three: we need a period each year for intentional spiritual introspection and contemplation. John R. W. Stott said that he required an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year to be alone with his Lord. We need a time every year for spiritual renewal. Just as students need a Spring Break, so do souls. Lent is a wonderful season for such renewal: as the physical world is renewing itself, so should the spiritual.
Can a spiritual discipline practiced for more than 17 centuries by the vast majority of Christians be irrelevant for us today?