What Is Lent?
Why do Christians sacrifice for 40 days? Learn about and understand Lent.
I get a little behind during Lent, but it comes out even at Christmas.Fitzgibbon, “Going My Way”1
How many of us can relate to the above sentiment?
You go through a season in life when you get serious about something, perhaps your diet. You give up sweets, carbs, starches, meat—whatever the newest diet craze demands. Then you exercise, going for runs and maybe even lifting weights. For a month or two, you shed a few pounds, lose a couple of inches, and feel great about what you’re accomplishing.
Then come the holidays or the stress of your work, school, or family responsibilities—and with them, the end of all restraint. Everything you lost (or gained, depending on how you look at it) is gained (or lost) right back.
It happens all the time. But this pattern of fasting and feasting is not only about food. All of life is lived in similar seasons.
Some seasons are characterized by abundance, growth, joy, celebration, or indulgence: getting married, having children, achieving great accomplishments, Christmas, Thanksgiving. Other seasons are quite the opposite: we lose a job, lose our perspective, or lose a loved one. These days are filled with grief, emptiness, searching, or a sense of spiritual hunger.
This back-and-forth pattern is the rhythm of our lives—one that provides key insight into a season called Lent.
A Season of Preparation
Lent is a period of forty days that Christians observe every year just before Easter, typically from late February to early April. The Lenten season begins on a day known as Ash Wednesday (about six weeks before Easter) and continues until Easter Sunday, not counting the Sundays in between, as they are still considered days of celebration.
The word “lent” comes from a Saxon word that meant “length.” It originally referred to the springtime season in the Northern Hemisphere when the days were lengthening and signs of new life were appearing.2
Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and repentance before the celebrations of Holy Week. For centuries, Christians have commemorated Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday and his subsequent resurrection from the grave on Easter Sunday.
Christians believe that Jesus’ death on the cross provides forgiveness of the sins of anyone who asks for it. And Jesus’ victory over death gives anyone who believes in him a joyful hope for a new life and a restored relationship with God.
Thus, early Christians developed the season of Lent as a time of preparation in order to experience the full meaning of Good Friday and Easter Sunday every year. Just as people carefully prepare for big events in their personal lives—a wedding, the birth of a child, or a graduation—Lent invites people of faith to make their hearts ready to remember Jesus’ death, commemorate his sacrifice, and celebrate his resurrection.3
A Wilderness Journey
The idea of Lent began during the third and fourth centuries.4 The number of days is based on the biblical significance of the number forty—specifically, the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert and Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness.5
Thus, Christians describe the forty-day Lenten season itself as a journey in the wilderness. Lent represents a time of searching for God amidst the brokenness of life, a season of intentional fasting before a time of feasting. Historically, Christians have given up something during Lent as a symbolic way to mark their journey and refocus their energy on their relationship with God.
Most often, this includes fasting from certain foods or drinks. Some skip a meal each day or give up specific things such as meat, caffeine, alcohol, or sweets. Others give up more modern luxuries such as the Internet, social media, or e-mail; reading books, magazines, or newspapers; shopping; watching television; or listening to music.
It is important to remember that none of these things are inherently bad, sinful, or evil. Yet any of these pleasures can easily become overly important in our lives. We likely have all experienced that.
The idea of a Lenten fast is to abstain from these subtle but powerful influences in our lives in order to become less distracted and better equipped to give one’s full attention to the spiritual journey. It is an occasion to relinquish something one typically enjoys in order to identify with Jesus and the sacrifice he made on Good Friday.
Significantly, “Lent should never be morose—an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures.”6 Lent should be considered an opportunity to realign ourselves with God and pursue a renewed relationship with him.
Many Christians adopt something new during Lent as well. They choose to pray at fixed times each day, read the Bible, serve the poor, observe moments of silence and meditation, or engage in habits that enrich the soul.7
On Ash Wednesday, some Christians attend special church services and place ashes on their foreheads as an outward symbol of the repentance and fast they are undertaking. The day before Ash Wednesday has become known as Fat Tuesday, or more familiarly, Mardi Gras. The day is considered one’s last chance to indulge in rich foods, intoxicating drink, or anything else one is giving up for the following six weeks.
A Strange Ritual
This yearly ritual may sound strange to anyone who has never observed Lent. But the point of Lent is not to do something “religious” to somehow impress God. Nor is it about drawing attention to what you are doing. Jesus himself warned his followers about fasting or praying in a public and prideful manner.8
Rather, Lent is about recognizing the regular seasons of life and embracing the rhythm of fasting before feasting. And this fasting—however one chooses to observe it—is a journey of faith. A journey of reflection and self-examination. A journey that provokes repentance and transformation.
Lent is a journey that culminates in the hope of Easter morning.
- So declares the character Fitzgibbon in Frank Butler and Frank Cavett’s screenplay, “Going My Way” in Best Film Plays of 1943–1944, ed. John Gassner and Dudley Nichols (New York: Crown Publishers, 1945), 187.
- Bobby Ross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 129.
- Emily Brink and John. D. Witvliet, ed., The Worship Sourcebook, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 551–552.
- For more historical background on Lent and how it fits into the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church, see Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Deuteronomy 29:1–6 and Matthew 4:1–11.
- Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), xvi.
- For various Lent readings and meditations, see Bread and Wine or Henri J. M. Nouwen, Show Me the Way: Daily Lenten Readings (New York: Crossroad, 1992).
- See The Holy Bible, Luke 18:9–14.
- Photo Credit: pinkypills / Shutterstock.com.
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