For those groups—and there are a lot of them in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism—that hold to a liturgical calendar and its celebrated seasons and days, Lent begins the pilgrimage to Jesus’ cross and resurrection. For most in the West, the season begins with Ash Wednesday and takes place over the next 40 days (Sundays excluded). Can Lent be abused or misused? Yes, of course. Can Lent be observed in a helpful way? I think so. It’s certainly not prescribed in the Bible so we shouldn’t see it as a God-ordained means of grace or as required for Christians, but at the same time, if done in the right way it might be a helpful teaching opportunity that prepares our hearts to feast on the Bread of Life, Jesus. Here’s a very brief explanation as to what Lent is, what is dangerous about it, and what might be helpful about it.
Background to Lent
The Latin word we translate into Lent is Quadragesmia, meaning “fortieth,” as in the forty days before Easter. In all likelihood, our English word “lent” originally suggested “spring,” which points to the long days of Spring. It’s disputed when exactly Lent began to be observed (whether pre- or post-Nicea) but it clearly was part of early church’s liturgical calendar. It’s possible that as early as Irenaeus (d. 203 AD) there was a Lenten fast of sorts—although it doesn’t appear to be a full forty days. Early on Lent became a time of fasting in preparation of and leading to the “holy week” commemorating Christ’s death and resurrection. However, per church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian, it appears the earliest stages of Lent allowed for various lengths for the fast (1 day, 2 days, 40 hours).
It wasn’t until Athanasius’ sixth letter in 334 AD that a forty day fast is directly mentioned and recommended. The Church at this time recognized a number of Christian seasons, festivals, and days that were part of the rhythm of the church’s life of remembering Jesus’ life and work. However, not all religious holidays are created equal. In both the Western and Eastern Church, the holy week has been and is emphasized more than the forty season of Lent. Lent remained an important and established season for the Catholic Church through the Medieval Ages, into the Reformation, and up until today. Sometimes they’ve over-stressed the inherent merit of such fasts and festivals and other times they’ve seen it more as a spiritual discipline tied to our church calendar.
When the Reformation came there were various responses to Lent and other religious holy days/seasons. Luther continued to observe most of them and never felt the need to get rid of all things Catholic. Calvin and the later Puritans largely rejected all Christian seasons and days as a reaction to the ritualism of Catholicism as well as to emphasize the importance of the Sabbath. Other Reformers, such as Turretin, saw religious days as still helpful when done in a biblical way and not required of Christians.
Some Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists would continue to observe religious seasons and days over the last few centuries. In the 18th-20th centuries Baptists and evangelicals as a whole tended to fear or fight against anything they saw as remotely Catholic. While that attitude has continued in some, the last couple of decades have seen a resurgence in evangelicals open to the value of a liturgical calendar and the observance of religious seasons and days.
Why Was a forty-day Lenten Fast Instituted?
So why was a forty day Lenten season or fast deemed important by the early church? First, it was part of their overall embracing of a liturgical calendar—whether formally or informally—and its associated seasons and days. The early church—and much of the Church right up to today—saw time as another way of living out life before God and to God. God is the one who creates seasons, days, and times in Genesis 1 and there seems to be an annual rhythm to life. Furthermore, in the OT God establishes another of “memorial” holidays to be remembered and participated in annually as a reminder of who God is, what His promises are, and how He has acted on their behalf.
The Sabbath was the pre-eminent day but the other feasts, festivals, and holy days were still nonetheless an important part of passing on the Acts and Word of God to their children, of remembering in an active and participatory sense the realities they believed, and keeping God-ordained and God-glorifying traditions that teach. The early church was well aware that these OT shadows were fulfilled in Jesus, but they saw God’s mode of operation in the OT as upholding the value of such religious observances and days. Whether one observes Lent or not, it is best reflected upon within the larger discussion of the value of a liturgical calendar and its associated seasons/days.
Second, fasting was a much bigger emphases in the early church. The Church has historically looked at fasting as a means of self-discipline to remind us that God alone is provider and he alone is sufficient. One fasts to redirect their focus from themselves and their wants/needs and to instead more intently focus on God and others. Jesus was the foremost example (and the early church took serious the example of Jesus’ life) and his forty day fast leading up to the wilderness temptation is likely why the Lenten fast became forty days. Although most American Christians now ignore or run from fasting, it has through the centuries been understood as one of the spiritual disciplines for knowing God and growing in his grace. There certainly have been abuses of this and the early church was at times guilty of seeing too much merit in their works, which led to stringent practices of asceticism and an over-idealized view of “spirituality.” Similar to what was said the paragraph above, whether one observes Lent or not it should be considered within the larger discussion of the right practice of and value in biblical fasting.
A third major reason was an immediate need in the early church. After Constantine’s “conversion” in 312 Christianity gradually moved from an acceptable religion to the religion of the State. This led to an influx of converts in the Church, many of whom were formerly pagans and some of whom were probably not Christian at all. Baptism didn’t only happen at Easter but it does seem that Easter was seen as a day when larger numbers of baptism could and should happen (which makes sense in light of Romans 6). The season of Lent leading up to these Easter baptism provided a season for baptismal candidates to receive intense catechetical instruction about the faith. The time was also seen as a way to prepare oneself or others for baptism and a fast where people could focus on the person and work of Jesus was seen as a great way to prepare.
There are certainly other reasons why Lent became part of the early church’s rhythm (for good or bad) but those seem to be three of the most significant.
Value and Dangers of Lent
Evangelicals tend to swing back and forth in their reactions and emphases. Today there is more of an openness than ever for Lent and the wider discussion of religious days. Hopefully, whether one observes Lent and related days or not they’re doing so based on discernment and not reaction. It’s clear that Lent isn’t prescribed in the Bible and there’s no inherent “spiritual” value to one day over another, so we should be careful about putting too much stock in extra-biblical practices. On the other side, Lent can be like many extra-biblical practices, a helpful tradition and opportunity to teach about the person and work of Jesus while we reorient our hearts towards him. It matters little to me whether people practice Lent or not—I won’t look down or esteem someone either way—but what matters is whether it’s practiced for the right reasons in an appropriate manner. Here are some of the things I see as dangers to avoid and possible benefits to embrace.
Dangers or Cautions
Lent has and is in many circles practiced for the wrong reasons, given an authority it shouldn’t have, abused and misused, and might even carry it with it unbiblical teaching or associations. For anyone observing Lent, they must be careful for themselves and for others to clarify what Lent is/does and what it isn’t/doesn’t do.
• We must recognize that fasting and rituals do not purify us, merit favor, or promote a higher spirituality.
• Fasts, festivals, and rituals devoid of meaning or mere habit are ineffective.
• Fasting should not be seen as a form of penance. The bible calls for repentance that leads to finding full forgiveness in and through Jesus, not penance where our effort makes up for our sins or lack of righteousness.
• One who practices Lent should feel free to separate a proper observance of Lent from its wrong excesses, but we should also be careful to separate Lent itself from those excesses (for ourselves and for others) and be clear what we’re doing and why.
• Making fasts mandatory or even expected is a “legalism” and a binding of the conscience that must be avoided.
• Lent and fasts should point to the fullness of Jesus and not subtract from or divert from his sufficiency and accomplishments.
• Becoming too specific in our fasts and festivals doesn’t seem healthy and might approach what Paul warned against in the forbidding of certain foods.
• Simply adopting early church practices doesn’t mean we’re aligned or united with them.
• Do not make Lent or any other festival a new thing to be excited about, a fad to jump on, or a misplaced priority. There are essentials for the life of the Church (Word, Sacraments, Discipline, Fellowship, Prayer, Giving/Charity) that should be both the focus and joy, and then non-essentials that might be helpful.
Values and Encouragements
Although we typically throw out the baby with the bath water by jettisoning anything that’s misused or abused, Lent might be a helpful way to teach about Jesus Christ and set our minds upon him. If it is understood correctly and observed in the right ways it can be a helpful season where Jesus is seen as Supreme.
• Although it isn’t required & necessary, it can be helpful. There’s a distinction between what’s required and what’s recommended.
• It can remain what it was in the early church, a time of education and catechesis leading up to the climactic events of Good Friday and Easter.
• A time of fasting and seeking a hunger for God.
• It is an opportunity to draw upon the rich heritage, history, and wisdom of the Church
• It might be a good way to connect with other Christians of different faiths or even Catholics and Orthodox. A connection point that leads to further dialogue, as well as clarification to what we believe.
• Like fasting, Lent might help overly busy Americans to declutter a portion of their lives and use time, money, or energy to rest in God or serve others.
• If Lent focuses on the inward preparation of our heart and the redirection of our desires towards Jesus, and not an external preoccupation with fasts or observances, then it might be a season of growth in grace.
• Lent at its best unites our freedom in Christ with our following (discipleship) of Christ. It’s the security of our justification through union with Christ that allows us to refocus our hearts and minds on our sin and God’s grace without slipping into desperation and discouragement.
• There seems to be value in seeing the rhythms of our life around the life of Jesus and the calendar of the church. The reality is we get so engrained in and absorbed by the leading of the world that we don’t even realize we already follow its calendar.
• It’s a reminder that we are still awaiting the consummation and it points us to the fulfillment of time.
Michael Horton on why Lent is a good teaching opportunity.
Daniel Hyde on why Lent is not holy but helpful.
Calvin Professor John D. Witvliet on Yes and No to Lent.
Desiring God devotional for the season of Lent.
Scotty Smith prayers for Lent and Ash Wednesday.
Chuck Colson on Five Benefits of Lent.
Journey to the Cross by Will Walker and Kendal Haug.
Alongside of confession, repentance, humility, and holiness, one of the focuses of Lent is lamenting. Lamenting for our own sins, the state of our hearts, and the brokenness of our world. To learn more about lament, I’d recommend this sermon series from Mark Vroegop.