To Lent or Not to Lent?
Next Wednesday (March 1) is Ash Wednesday, and that marks the beginning of Lent. But what exactly is Lent?
If you grew up in a Catholic or traditional protestant denomination, you may have been to an Ash Wednesday service and had ashes painted on your forehead in the sign of the cross. You may have given up chocolate or movies or chewing gum during lent. And you may have wondered what this was all about.
You won’t find “Lent” in the Bible. In fact, you won’t find much of the traditional church calendar in the Bible. Jesus commanded us to do two ceremonial things: to be baptized as a sign of our faith in him and to remember his death on our behalf through the Lord’s supper (communion). Over the centuries church denominations have developed many other traditions to help us remember other parts of Jesus’ story and its significance to our life of faith today. Celebrating these traditional seasons can be very meaningful, but they are certainly not essential.
Lent began in the 4th Century as a way for Catholics to remind themselves of the value of repentance. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday; this is 46 days, or 40 days not counting Sundays. The 40 days is significant because it’s the amount of time Jesus spent in the desert fasting before he began his ministry. At the end of this time he was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). In a sense lent brings together the book ends of Jesus’ ministry, linking his fast at the beginning of his ministry with preparing ourselves to celebrate his death and resurrection (Easter) at the end of his ministry on earth.
Traditionally, lent became a time to fast or give up something pleasurable as a form of self-discipline. It also became a time to focus on repentance from sin. Fasting can be a good thing (we sometimes invite our church family to practice a full or partial fast for a week or two to so we can devote extra time and attention to prayer). If practicing a Lenten fast helps you grow in your relationship with God, then we encourage you to do so. For example, you might give up desserts and find that your sweet-tooth cravings are a great reminder that you need God (even more than sugar!), which might prompt you to pray for his comfort and his wisdom, and to be more aware of his presence. But if, as has sometimes been the case in some Christian traditions, practicing Lent becomes a way to try to earn God’s blessings, then you might be better not to practice Lent to remind yourself that we are saved by grace, not by anything we do. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9). The time leading up to Good Friday and Easter when we remember Jesus death and resurrection may be a good time to focus on repenting from sinful habits (especially if giving them up for a few weeks helps you quit). But we don’t have to set aside a special time of the year for this. We want to confess our sin and ask God to forgive us every day of the year, not just during Lent.
So to Lent, or not to Lent? What is God calling you to do this year?
(Written by Gill Robertson)