Growing up in a non-denominational, evangelical tradition of worship, I was never particularly encouraged to participate in a liturgical event like Lent. Historically, after the Reformation, many Protestant churches abandoned the observance of Lent and other liturgical practices in distancing themselves from abuses in the Catholic church. Personally, the obscene excesses of Mardi Gras, the licentiousness of Fat Tuesday, and the legalistic penance I’ve observed on Ash Wednesday caused me to distance myself from Lent, too.
Rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, however, maybe we should consider the spiritual and relational benefits of preparing our hearts to remember the crucifixion of Jesus and celebrate His resurrection. Rather than giving up on Lent, it’s time we look to Jesus at Easter the same way we anticipate His Advent at Christmas.
Lent is a forty day journey of preparation —a season of prayer (talking and listening to God), fasting (focusing on God) and repentance (turning toward God and His purposes). It’s a time for reflecting on our shared experience of the suffering, death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very center of our faith.
Like the Apostle Paul, “My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” – Philippians 3:10
Lent could be, if observed in the context of our relationship with God by grace, a time of self-examination that leads us to the end of our self-sufficiency and to full dependence on Jesus. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary describes Lent as,
“The English word (stemming from an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘spring’ and related to the English word ‘lengthen’) that refers to the penitential period preceding Easter. 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.”
The traditional 40 day calendar for Lent goes from Ash Wednesday (March 6) to Easter (April 21), with exceptions for Sundays (always a feast day). Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a celebration and reminder of human mortality, as a sign of mourning over sin, and repentance of turning to God in faith.
Forty is a significant number in the Bible—it signals a time of waiting and preparation. In Genesis, Moses shows us Noah and his family in the ark, enduring the rains for 40 days and nights (Genesis 7:17). Moses, himself, spends another 40 days and nights on the top of a mountain, neither eating nor drinking as he experiences the presence of God (Exodus 34:28). In Numbers 14, Moses shows that the Lord God, fed up with the complaining and rebellion of the Israelites, condemned them to 40 years of wandering in the desert based on the 40 days they scouted the land of Canaan. We discover from Deuteronomy 8:2 that the purpose for the Israelites’ 40 year journey was to humble them and test them so they would realize what was in their hearts and their need for God’s presence and power.
Mirroring the Old Testament, the gospel writers of the New Testament reveal Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness, fasting, and being tempted (tested) by Satan: “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness 40 days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels began to serve Him” (Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).
Following this pattern, followers of Jesus throughout the centuries have marked the 40 days leading up to His death and resurrection by a similar period of fasting and testing known as Lent. May this season of Lent be one of repentance, hope, and joy in the resurrection of Christ—one that will last beyond these 40 days.
Follow me…as I follow Jesus Christ.