It is that time of the year again, as we begin the run-up to one of the most symbolically important events in the year for the practicing Christian – Easter. And in that preparatory time, many observe what is called “Lent”.
There are some conflicting views on what Lent is about and how to “observe” it, with some extreme examples on all sides. In the interest of full disclosure, I grew up as an “Episcopalian”, which means that I grew up in a household where we typically made a pretty big deal out of Lent. By the same token, having come to Christ later in life and having a propensity to dig in and figure out the origins and reasons for a particular practice or observation before I adopt it (or reject it) myself, I find no clear instruction or mandate in all of scripture for the Christian to observe Lent. The purpose of this entry is to take a look at some of the most prevalent mode of observing the pre-Easter season, and the relative merits of them.
What is Lent?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
The 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter observed by the Roman Catholic, Eastern, and some Protestant churches as a period of penitence and fasting.
This is the basic definition, but it doesn’t give the history or the basis of support used in observance. Lenten observation is primarily based on two, 40-day fasts recorded in scripture, both of which were preparatory periods for important events. In the case of Moses (Exodus 34:28), his 40 day & night fast (obviously supernaturally empowered, as the human body cannot withstand anywhere near that time period without food and water) was for the purpose of receiving the 10 Commandments from God.
The second case is of Jesus and His 40 day (and night) fast in preparation for temptation by the Devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). The fast, which would have dramatically affected Christ’s physical body (fully-human) setting up Hebrews 4:15‘s clear statement referring to Jesus as “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Neither of these is a command given to believers under the New Testament, but are simply examples both of the idea of a particular (and supernaturally sustained) preparation for important working by the Lord in two specific instances. I do acknowledge that fasting is quite scriptural for New Testament believers when engaged for the right reasons and purposes (not for show or vain repetition).
How is Lent Observed?
This will not be an exhaustive answer, but in basic terms, Lent is generally observed by special time of prayer, reading of God’s Word, fasting, and some kind of “self-denial”. The most famous (infamous) observation of Lent stems from the very public pre-Lent debauchery known as Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is essentially a week of partying, gluttony, and “fulfill your flesh” activities before the celebrants “give it up” for 40 days. One particular day that really sticks out in my eyes – “Fat Tuesday” – the pinnacle of gluttony, as many who observe Lent, particularly of the Catholic faith, give up eating red meat on Friday (formerly was a year-round requirement). Both Catholics, and others who formally observe Lent also usually “give up” something, often thought of as vices. Some may give up smoking, some maybe chocolate or candy, and still others might give up video games or other desirable activities. Of particular interest is that often those things or activities given up are often thought of as “bad for them”. The Lent season, especially Fat Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday for some), is also suppose to focus on confession.
The period of self-denial is suppose to prepare the heart for observing Easter Sunday and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now, to my own problems with the concept of Lent:
First of all, there is no biblical mandate or even instructions regarding such a period of self-denial, confession, or preparation for “Easter”. Instead, Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Self-denial and repentance are suppose to be “every day” for the Christian, not just a 40 day period just before Easter. James wrote that believers are to confess your sins to one another.
Further, God’s Word is suppose to be part of our daily “diet” – feasting on the Word. Remember Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 when tempted by Satan – Matthew 4:4 “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
If we are going to be really honest – if you choose to observe Lent by “giving up” something that is important to you – isn’t there a pretty good chance that – if it really hurts or bothers you to give it up, that it might have a place in your life of undue importance – maybe by chance, it is a type of “idol”?
Now, before anyone takes this as a condemnation of those who choose to observe Lent, let me clarify something. If a professed Christian chooses to set aside a special time of confession, self-denial, and focus on the Word of God and Christ’s sacrifice for their salvation, I do not have a problem with that. Indeed, anything that will cause you to devote greater time and devotion to the Lord can be a good thing. The problem comes in when, one – it becomes somehow a “requirement” dictated by a denomination or leader, and two – when those who adhere to such a practice view those who do not observe Lent as somehow inferior or “unbelievers”.
I would encourage you to make the Word of God a far more prominent part of your life, each and every day, not just because a “church calendar” event says you are suppose to. Take up your cross every day, seeking how you can become more like Jesus in your walk. Make a difference in someone’s life. And repent (turn-from) those things that have taken on idol-like positions in your life. put Jesus first each and every day, not just for 40 days! And if you choose to observe Lent, don’t do it in the way that Jesus condemned (Matthew 6:16-18).
Until next time…
2 thoughts on “Lent?”
I don't always give up something for Lent but one of the most spiritually valuable things I did one year was to give up an hour of TV,and replace it with Bible reading. A couple of months later I had read through the Bible and felt so much closer to God. I need to read the Bible everyday, absolutely and that Lent got me back into a very good habit. I think I need to do this again. I've been lax lately.