Lent is the forty day season (excluding Sundays) that starts with Ash Wednesday and ends with Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter). In 2017 the Lenten season lasts from March 1st to April 16th. The word ‘lent’ comes from the word which means Spring, the season of the year in which Lent happens.
Lent is a season of repentance and lament; it is a time for the church to ponder the things which rob us of our sense of God’s presence, habits which rob our souls of joy, and/or subtle/explicit patterns of rebellion in our hearts. Often, the church has chosen to abstain from particular things or behaviors for the 40 day season — sweets, TV/Electronics, meat, or morning coffee. Sometimes in Lent, rather than abstain from something, Christians have added something for the season such as more church attendance, increasing charitable donations, or more regular patterns of prayer, bible memorization, or bible reading.
Lent is about preparing. Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting and praying (Matthew 4:1-11). The Apostles spent forty days being taught by God (Acts 1:3). In both of these instances the forty days preceded baptism; for Jesus it was his water baptism and for the Apostles it was the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The early church observed this pattern and would have Christians who were waiting to undergo baptism observe a season of ‘Lent’ as they prepared to be baptized on Easter Sunday. As baptismal candidates fasted, prayed, lamented, and repented they would focus on their need to be washed by the blood of Jesus, the nearness of the Holy Spirit, and and the beauty of the sacrament of baptism.
Over the years, the rest of the church would join in this Lenten season by praying and fasting along with those who were to be baptized. As the church fasted (gave up something good) they would reflect on how God is the Highest Good; as they prayed for those about to be baptized to persevere in the faith, they would also pray for their own steadfastness in The Way of the Lord.
This Lenten season now is a way for the whole church (especially those looking forward to baptism) to prepare ourselves for Easter Sunday by pursuing the presence of the Lord, grow in awareness of our indwelling sin, and meditate on our belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to save our wayward souls. In doing so, we symbolically identify with Christ and the Apostles, who also prepared themselves for forty days. This practice of preparing for Easter goes back as early as Irenaeus in 203A.D.
Last year, 61% of Roman Catholics and 28% of Evangelicals observed Lent. Many in the past have engaged in Lent as a way of trying to earn God’s favor, which is a motivation we outright reject; attempting to ‘earn’ God’s favor rejects the sufficiency of the gospel of Jesus! Rather, we encourage all Christians who want to grow in their love of God and to have their hearts further conformed to the image of Jesus to engage in this Lenten season. Sometimes giving ourselves to a new spiritual exercise is a helpful way of kickstarting spiritual vitality. As with all of life, “by changing nothing, nothing will change” (Mark Twain).
How not to observe Lent:
•Don’t give up sin for Lent. I had a friend in high school who gave up sexual sin for Lent; this is not the point. If you are aware of a pattern of sin in your life, repent now and don’t wait for March 1st.
•Don’t use Lent as means to serve your fitness goals. If your real goal is losing ten pounds, then the focus of your journey won’t be closeness with God. If you want to lose weight, do it, but don’t use God to hide your real motives.
•Don’t use this as an opportunity to take yourself seriously or compare yourself to other Christians.
How to observe Lent:
•Give up something good and normal like a particular food, electronics, parking in the garage, driving on the freeway, breakfast, etc. Fasting is about giving up something good as a way of triggering prayer.
•Replace that good thing with a specific prayer or spiritual discipline. Here are some examples:
◦When I skip breakfast and am eventually hungry, I will focus on memorizing John chapter 6 and will reflect on how Jesus is the bread of life and how his word is sweet to my taste (Psalm 119:103).
◦When I take surface streets instead of the freeway, I will pray at every red light about how God is not in a hurry nor is he impatient, therefore I don’t need to be in a hurry or impatient (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
◦When I do not check my Facebook for forty days, each time I have the urge to login and feel out of the loop, I will reflect on the fact that God knows all things and is sovereign over all things. I will repent of my ‘fear of missing out’ and will be present where God has placed me (Acts 17:26-27).
◦Whenever I want to watch Netflix in the next 40 days, I will instead clean something in the house, even if it is already clean, and while I do that I will pray for those who are about to be baptized (a symbol of being cleansed by the blood of Jesus) on Easter Sunday 2017 while memorizing Acts 2:14-41.
•In the midst of these practices, the hope is that you would grow in your awareness of God’s nearness and that his presence would cause you to be more aware of your ongoing sinfulness. Repent of these things as they are exposed in you.
•Commit hard for forty days then go back to enjoying the good gift of God’s creation that you gave up. Hopefully, when you add these things back into your life you will do so with a greater sense of gratitude towards the Good Father who gives good gifts to his children.
You & Lent 2017
Do you intend to observe Lent? If you never have before, give it a try. See if a friend of yours is willing to observe the Lenten seasons with you and encourage each other in your respective journeys. Remember, this is about growing in awareness of God’s presence, reminding yourself of your need of the gospel, and taking God seriously, not taking yourself seriously.