When you hear the word, “Lent,” what comes to mind? Do you get visions of giving up chocolate or whiskey for a month? Does a picture of a monk—kneeling and alone in his cell, whipping himself to pay for his sin—flash before your mind’s eye? Or maybe you think of someone in your past trying to guilt you into a religious practice that, you believe, has no basis in Scripture?
I did not grow up practicing Lent. There is not a robust practice of Lent in the Reformed tradition. In fact, if anything, my fellow seminarians (and even some professors) regarded Lent with deep skepticism, recalling Medieval church repression and gospel-less spirituality. The Puritans are, perhaps, the most extreme example of this impulse, eliminating anything that smacked of Catholicism, including Lent, the rest of the church calendar, and even wedding rings.
And yet, Lent is an ancient and longstanding practice in Christian history. It’s roots date to the 2nd century, just 100 years after the death and resurrection of Christ. The council that gave us the Nicene Creed in 325 A.D., also codified the practice of Lent as a period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to the celebration of Easter. And as I have sought simple, everyday, embodied ways to practice my faith in Christ Jesus, I have been drawn to ancient seasons and practices, like Lent.
I want to share a few things I’ve learned about Lent along the way, link to some helpful resources, and invite you to celebrate Lent with me, beginning this Wednesday, March 6, and culminating on Easter Sunday, April 21. I hope, rather than some of the extreme, weird, or legalistic images you or I may have in our heads, that we can put in their place how our ancient church fathers and mothers viewed Lent: as a time of repentance and renewal.
Rather than a time of earning forgiveness, according to Prof. Fred Grissom, Lent was a preparation for celebration: “Early Christians felt that the magnitude of the Easter celebration called for special preparation. As early as the second century, many Christians observed several days of fasting as part of that preparation.” Scholars believe that the special time of preparation may have been practiced first by new converts to Christianity in the lead up to their baptism on Easter Sunday. The 40 days had biblical significance, hearkening back to the 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, and especially the 40 days of fasting that Christ went through after his baptism (Matthew 4:1-11).
Historically, Lent has been a practical way for Christians to remember that resurrection only comes after crucifixion. We hold a privileged position as the adopted children of God to identify with our Older Brother, Jesus Christ, in his suffering and self-emptying prior to his exaltation as Lord of all (see Philippians 2:5-11). We have the mind of Christ, a mind deeply shaped by suffering and costly obedience.
That said, Lent is NOT required of any follower of Jesus. No one should be pressured or forced to conform to a practice that, while historic, is not commanded in Scripture. Christ alone is King of our conscience.
At the same time, communal practices like this can be a great help and encouragement to us as we deepen our pursuit of Christ in all areas of our lives. That is why I am, for the first time in my spiritual journey, going to practice Lent this year. And I’d be happy to have you join me if you feel so called.
If you’d like to learn more here are a few resources to help you go further. If you’d like to talk, I am always available!
Myths about Lent abound. Here are some answers to Protestant myths about Lent.
The Liturgy Letter has music (Spotify playlists!), prayers, and Scriptures to read for Ash Wednesday and the first week of Lent.
We shared this guide to the Christian calendar, Seasons, from the Village Church during Advent. Their resources for Lent are excellent! It includes things like a reading plan, songs, prayers, family discipleship suggestions, and possible things to fast from for each week of Lent.
Hands at Work has invited partner churches like ours to participate in 40 days of prayer on behalf of the most vulnerable children in Africa.