What Is Lent?
Lent is the 40-day period before Easter. It is the time set aside by the faithful as a time of reflection, penitence and giving. Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter. Actually, it is a 46-day period, because Sundays are not counted, leaving 40 days for Lent.
Lent encompasses some of the major events described in the Gospels, such as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (celebrated on Palm Sunday) and Jesus’ Crucifixion, culminating in His Resurrection. This period is punctuated by the historic and spiritual events that separate Jesus from all others, marking Him as the only way to God. As believers, we reflect on these truths during Lent.
How Did Lent Start?
The term or practice of Lent is not found in the Bible. However, Lent does have a strong connection to something very biblical—baptism.
Believers in the early church encountered social pressure. They could be ostracized by others in their communities, cut off from relationships, accused of vile practices, jailed, persecuted or even killed. Individuals who considered committing their lives to Jesus were encouraged to count the cost. They would undergo a period of study, reflection and sober decision before they would be baptized on Easter. New believers joined in prayer, fasting, study and community as they determined if they would be baptized and bear the cost of their allegiance to Jesus.
Existing believers used this time to support new believers and renew their commitment and faith in Christ. These widespread practices among the faithful were already seen as traditions as reported by Irenaeus of Lyons, an early church leader in the 2nd century. The practice varied in length; some might reflect for a few days while others might do a 40-hour fast.
The practice of Lent became more formalized over the centuries. Pope Gregory the Great (540 to 604 A.D.) formalized Lent to begin on Ash Wednesday and end at Easter. As the Christian faith grew in acceptance, the rigor of Lent became more relaxed.
Why Observe Lent?
A vile stench of death surrounds us, a dying world. Like the Prodigal Son, we wake with the pigs and grow desperate. Sin has us backed into a corner. It is like we are injured and on the ground, gushing blood and slipping into shock. We must trust another One. Just before we come to faith in Jesus, we realize in desperation that we are out of choices. We cannot save ourselves. Faith marked by baptism is where we say urgently and desperately “save me!”
Lent is linked to baptism. Each Lent provides us another chance to grasp that our salvation comes by Christ alone, doing what we cannot do for ourselves. He meets our desperation with an eternal solution. We respond in joy, gratitude and thanksgiving.
But each Lent takes us further. As we fast and pray, we grow in our hunger for God. First, we reluctantly give up. Then we willingly give up food, time or activities so we can grasp who God is. As we mature, we urgently seek God. We learn that God through Jesus provides more than salvation: life itself. Our life, our identity, our purpose, our joy all flow from knowing God and ourselves in light of him. Like plants need water, we need God to exist. Lent provides us opportunities to soak up the life-giving water provided by the Holy Spirit. We grow roots and blossom in response to our God, the life giver.
What Do We Gain During Lent?
Romance involves focused attention. We observe anniversaries to remind us of commitments. Our love relationship with Jesus also requires focused attention. Lent is the period of the year when Jesus’ trial, Crucifixion and Resurrection occurred. Lent reminds us of those events and draws us closer to Jesus in several ways. Observing Lent:
Creates Awareness: Lent provides a structure for us to slow down and pay attention. This awareness produces other benefits.
Heightens Our Gratitude and Appreciation: We reflect on the horrendous suffering Jesus endured for us. The movie The Passion of the Christ brutally portrays the Crucifixion scenes, yet no visual or written account begins to capture the actual brutality and malice by humans and demonic powers experienced by Jesus on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. We are grateful Jesus took our place.
Increases Our Humility and Love: As we realize the price Jesus paid, we can only respond in love toward Him. As we come to accept that our actions and sins led to Jesus taking our place, we can only be humbled by his sacrifice.
Identifies Priorities: Busy, busy, busy. Church? Family gathering? Ham or turkey? New dresses? Easter candy? Urgent matters clutter our minds and days. Lent allows us to slow down and focus on the important. Where do we stand with God? Do I love God with all my heart? Where do those I love stand with God? How do I act as God’s ambassador to my children, spouse, parents, siblings, friends, coworkers or neighbors? Lent gives us time to ask what is important and time to pursue it.
Breaks Control: Ancient practices of prayer, fasting and penitence reveal what controls us. We give the Holy Spirit quiet moments to teach and confront us. These times of reflection help us learn if guilt, approval from others, physical appetites, love of money, power, fear or abuse controls us. We can surrender to the Holy Spirit’s leadership, break what controls us and gain a right balance in all areas of our lives.
Deepens Our Relationship with Christ: We learn to trust God through the insights gained during Lent. We no longer need to create pretenses or facades before God. We become honest and vulnerable before the One Who Fully Knows Us. We can embrace God as a child not holding back, a child who knows acceptance.
Builds Christian Community: You are not alone. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 3:23. The pretenders, those who have it all together and those who are broken, all need God’s grace. Prayer, study and worship through Lent build awareness that we are part of a heavenly family.
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