I am writing this on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. According to the church calendar today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season called Lent. For those of us who have a High-Church background we are very familiar with Lent. However, many within the Evangelical church do not have a clear understanding on what, exactly, this season means, why it is observed, and whether or not Lent has any significance in the life of a Christ-follower today. I will try to clarify some of these issues regarding Lent.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the real aim of Lent is, above all else, to prepare men for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ…the better the preparation the more effective the celebration will be. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification by weaning men from sin and selfishness through self-denial and prayer, by creating in them the desire to do God’s will and to make His kingdom come by making it come first of all in their hearts.”
The word Lent is traced to an Old English word lencten (related to “lengthen,” referring to the length-ening of days) that simply referred to the season of spring. In Latin it is called quadragesima, which means the “40 days” (or more literally the “40th day” before Easter). This term identifies the season with the 40-day period beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday. Actually, Lent lasts for 46 days: 40 fasting days and six Sundays. Lent commemorates Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry, and Christians approach the season as a time of fasting in preparation of remembering the death and resurrection of our Lord.
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. As the priest applies the ashes to a person’s forehead in the form of a cross, he speaks the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Alternatively, the priest may speak the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Ashes also symbolize grief, in this case, grief that we have sinned and caused division from God. It is a solemn observance of self-reflection and repentance.
As mentioned earlier the purpose for observing Lent is self-reflection, self-denial, repentance, and seeking to live more for Christ and less for self. This is why we fast during Lent. While I was grow-ing up we gave up something we enjoyed during this period. The question, “What did you give up for Lent?” was common among my friends. As children we would give up ice cream, candy, or some-thing like that. I tried to give up spinach one year but my mom made me pick something else.
What I didn’t understand was the spiritual significance of the practice of fasting during Lent. The purpose is not simply self-denial. Self-denial focuses on the self, and this is a fruitless endeavor. The purpose of self-denial is to wean our attention off of self and transfer our focus onto serving both God and others. Therefore, fasting during Lent has the same purpose. We are to prayerfully ask the Lord to reveal areas in our lives that need to be addressed: addictions, habits, behavioral patterns, mindsets, etc., and then seek to allow God to make that change within us through the discipline of fasting and prayer. The idea is not to “white-knuckle-it” for 40 days and then go back to the old ways of doing things. The purpose is to make a change: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Here are just two examples:
- Suppose you realize that you have an addiction to caffeine, and for health reasons you know you need to make a change. Instead of buying coffee from Starbucks or Peete’s during the Lenten season you can brew your own decaf, save the money you would have spent on coffee and donate it to the charity. After Lent is over you have kicked your caffeine habit, switched to decaf, improving your health and saving money. You also contributed to helping others financially.
- Perhaps you realized that you spent too much time watching 24-hour cable news, allowing frustration, anger, and partisan attitudes to take root in your mind. One way of addressing this is to limit your time watching those shows, and use the time instead of activities such as reading, exercising, volunteering, or studying Scripture. It will be difficult at first, but after a while you will find yourself more patient and less angry, and you will discover greater joy in other areas of life.
Whether or not we observe the season of Lent is not important. What is important is that we are aware of those areas of our lives which God wants to change, and then allowing Him to change us. This is not easy. But when we allow God to transform us we experience the freedom from sin, doubt, and fear, and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) becomes manifest in us and through us. There-fore, let me encourage you to prayerfully approach this season asking God to reveal a change He wants to make within you, and then allow Him to do it through fasting and prayer.
I highly recommend the book Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. This is a book that will provide great insight into the common disciplines of the Christian faith. His chapter on fasting is excellent, and it will shine greater light on this subject.
Your servant in Christ,