You might have noticed that we at St. Peter’s Fireside are big fans of Lent, but what on earth is Lent all about? Let’s discuss the origin and practice of Lent.
First of all, Lent ain’t a recent invention! It has an ancient pedigree in the Christian church. In the earliest days (2nd-3rd century), men and women who had encountered the love of Christ started an annual remembrance of His resurrection. Momentum gained and the church quickly recognized the value of making spiritual and moral preparation for Easter. By the 3rd century, the six days leading up to Easter were earmarked for fasting and prayer. By the 4th century, this period of spiritual preparation had been extended to forty days.
Forty was chosen because of its biblical significance: Moses’ Sinai encounter with God lasted forty days. More importantly, Jesus’ intense experience of fasting and temptation in the desert lasted forty days (Matthew 4; Mark 1). As the church’s practice congealed, Lent came to be regarded as a time for sober self-reflection, humility, openness, and repentance before God.
These ancient traditions form the backbone of our understanding of the Lenten season. Various upheavals associated with the Protestant Reformation led many Protestant Christians to disregard Lent. Alas, this move was akin to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” These days, things have been changing for the better. More and more Christians are recognizing anew the spiritual gains of keeping Lent.
What is Lent all About?
Lent creates a space for becoming more fully abandoned to God. This is an essential purpose of Lent.
The heart of Lent, in a word, is identification with Christ. Or, to put it another way, Lent creates a space for becoming more fully abandoned to God. This is an essential purpose of Lent. Sadly, in the lives of Christians, this has sometimes been sidelined.
Identification with Christ means more than identification with his resurrection and victory over sin. It also means intimate familiarity with Christ’s humility, trials, and death. This type of dying demands a posture of humility and unconcealed neediness before God. The need for this type of purifying death in every human points to the reason that Christ laid down his life for us on the Cross. Lent aspires to bring these grim, sober realities to the fore of our consciousness.
Lent also creates a space for being more fully abandoned to God. Entry into the Lenten season summons us to a profound sense of our finitude, brokenness, and sinfulness. The early church knew that this could not be achieved in a few days. That’s why they created the Lenten season to be a sizeable period of time!
So where does all this leave us?
For starters, Lent beckons us to consider our true state of existence apart from God. It is not a pretty situation. Apart from Christ, our lives are marinated in mess and crumple into darkness and ash. This is the vivid reminder of Ash Wednesday with its imposition of ashes onto our foreheads. With Christ, however, darkness gives way to light and restoration. Lent embraces the darkness of the human condition while yet anticipating the marvellous event of Easter. For this reason, its been characterized as a season of bright sadness.
The theological heart of Lent is embodied, in part, by the spiritual discipline of fasting. Fasting is not a means of impressing God. Nope. Instead, it is an instrument that helps clear things from our lives that distract us from God!
Self-denial, whether applied to food, activities, or enjoyable habits, frees us for more intimacy with Christ. It creates spaces for reflecting on our radical need for God’s grace. It facilitates increased occasion to dwell upon the more somber and sorrowful aspects of identification with Christ.
So what now?
With Ash Wednesday upon us, here’s what I’d recommend:
First: Fast. take some time to prayerfully consider specific, personal forms of self-denial and fasting for the Lenten season.
Second: Reflect. Contemplate how to be proactive in self-examination, self-emptying, and repentance.
Third: Pray. Plead with the Holy Spirit to direct and bless your Lenten gestures so that they might prepare your heart to receive again, with immense gratitude, the glorious declaration of Easter.
Remember that the brightness at the conclusion of the Lenten season isn’t an excuse to overlook the solemn, grave facets of either Christ’s or our story. When Easter follows a proper Lenten season, an amplified experience of joy awaits. This is the joy that emanates from the new life that is born out of the death of the old!