What is Lent?
Years ago, I can remember a good friend of mine lamenting the fact that the church celebrated the birth of Christ for a whole month but his death and the resurrection for three days. He just couldn’t figure out why the two most important events in Christianity had been relegated to a weekend.
In the years that followed as I was introduced to the Church calendar it dawned on me that, historically, the church hasn’t spent one weekend celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, it spent seven weeks doing so, during the season of Lent – the forty-days (not counting Sundays) stretching from Ash Wednesday (February 14th this year) to Easter.
For many, I know that talk of Lent can be foreign or even threatening – evoking images of empty ritual or works based righteousness. This is understandable. Like all good things God has given to his church – like prayer, bible reading, or even the elements of our weekly services – we can easily abuse the gift by turning it into something that earns us favor with God, rather than as a means the Spirit can use to deepen our communion with him.
From its inception in the third and fourth centuries within the church calendar (see appendix) Lent has been a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is this preparation and repentance—aimed at grasping the intense significance of the crucifixion—that gives us a deep and powerful longing for the resurrection, the joy of Easter. Just as we carefully prepare for big events in our personal lives, such as a wedding or commencement, Lent invites us to make our hearts ready for two of the most significant events in the history of the Church and the world, Good Friday and Easter.
Why Consider Observing Lent?
Let me first state that observing Lent is not necessary for our growth in sanctification or our faithfulness in the Christian life. Since the time of the Protestant Reformation there has been debate about the merits of observing Lent and there are godly people on each side of this debate. With that being said, I believe that observing this season can be a formative and helpful practice the Spirit uses in our lives.
Lent is about the gospel making its way deeper into our lives. It’s an opportunity for us to root ourselves in the good news that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It’s a time to take stock, examine our hearts, repent of sin, turn to God, reflect on the suffering our Savior endured to accomplish our salvation, and finally, rest in the assurance of that salvation.
Lent is an opportunity to put ourselves in a position where the Spirit can be at work in our hearts as we meditate on our sin and weakness, look to Jesus as our perfect example and substitute, and respond in thankfulness for his victory over Satan, sin, and death.
Additionally, this season gives us a holistic vision of the Christian life as we’re reminded that life isn’t happy all the time. Lent in particular gives people the space to acknowledge that life is messy, that sin is discouraging and depressing, that the world is a broken place. We don’t always have to end with a happy song, Lent gives us space for lament. And as we acknowledge all of this, Lent is a reminder that Christ experiences all of this with us (Heb. 2).
How to Observe Lent
Traditionally, Lent has been observed by the three-fold practice of giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. These practices are not particular to Lent, these are gospel-commanded actions that Christ called his church to live out (Matt. 6.1-6, 16-18), but they are intensified during this season so that we might be directed upward in love of God and outward in love of neighbor.
The spiritual discipline of fasting is the one that is most closely connected with the season of Lent. It’s a common practice during the forty-days to engage in an ascetical fast, giving up something that you enjoy and look forward to, something that you’ll notice when it’s gone. This isn’t meant to be an exercise in self-improvement but it’s a practice designed to channel and express our desire for God. As John Piper has said, “We are putting our stomach where our heart is to give added intensity and expressiveness to our ache for Jesus.” The heart of fasting is the formation of our longings.
The goal is to remind us that we “don’t live by bread alone.” As we go throughout our days and experience the longing or desire for whatever we have chosen to give up, its meant to cause us to stop, look to the cross, and consider all that Christ gave up for us. To pray and say to God, “I am more thankful for you and what you have done, than I am this thing that I am going without.”
Here are some good things to consider giving up for Lent. Whatever type of food – guilty pleasure or daily ritual – that you find enjoyable and you look forward to, so that when you give it up you will notice its absence. For example, this year I plan on giving up coffee. Another option would be any form of entertainment that you find yourself going to in times of boredom. This could be Netflix or any streaming service, video games, or any form of social media.
It can be helpful during this season to spend time meditating on the life of Christ, especially his last week from Palm Sunday through Resurrection Sunday. The devotional Journey to the Cross is a helpful resource to guide you through Lent.
Appendix: On the Church Calendar
While this post has been specific to the season of Lent, I thought that it would be helpful to just briefly tie this into the bigger topic of the church calendar. Following the pattern of Judaism, the early Church began to develop its own church calendar filled with patters of celebrations (feasts) and seasons. Of the celebrations Christmas and Easter are some of the more obvious to us, whereas others like Ascension, Epiphany, and Trinity Sunday are less known. The season of Advent is very familiar to us while other seasons like Ordinary Time, Lent, and Passion Week have less meaning.
As the church developed this calendar they did so intentionally seeking to mirror the climatic evens of salvation history – specifically the saving works of God in Christ. As Jamie Smith comments, “time here revolves around a person—Jesus of Nazareth.” As you can see (figure 1) the church’s calendar basically parallels the life of Christ: birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the time of filling the church with the Spirit.
The various seasons work in connection with the feast days/observances. There is a clear rhythm and logic. Seasons of preparation, repentance and longing for the work of God promised (Advent, Lent) lead into feasts of joy in and thanksgiving for God’s gracious deeds (Christmas, Easter), which then flow into different seasons of intentional remembrance and celebration of the work of God accomplished (Christmastide, Eastertide). “There is a rhythm in this story of promise and fulfillment, of longing and being satisfied, of God’s gracious work for us and of our grateful receiving of and resting in and responding to it.”
As we recognize the (gospel) story the church calendar is telling and as we begin participating in its celebrations and seasons, it becomes not just a story of God’s work in Christ, but also a story (drama?) in which we play a part. We play our part as we long for his coming, celebrate the initial manifestations of it, seek to live more fully in and into the presence of our Triune God, and to pray for fuller realizations of it.
The church calendar is important and formative because through the intentional participation in its celebrations and seasons we are opening ourselves up to opportunities to be shaped by the Spirit. Brendsel’s comment is helpful here, he writes, “The church’s liturgy is a place where the Lord through his Spirit is present to us. And where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom and transformation.”