For much of the evangelical church, and possibly the Orthodox and Catholic Church, there is some awareness of the practice of Lent, and maybe even some thought of a biblical reasoning, but the history is foreign. Lent, like many other traditions, has evolved over time. At first it was a three-day preparation and has become a 40-day period on the church calendar that, for some, focuses on repentance and penance.
The word Lent (old english derived from Lentin) actually just means “springtime” or “lengthening of days”. It is more a description of the actual physical season and not the spiritual practices. The latin word however (which would have been the term used in the Catholic Church for centuries) is quadragesima, which refers to it’s 40-day length.
At first Lent was a short three-day preparation for Easter, but as the practice of baptisms on Easter Sunday were adopted by the church, it turned into a three-week preparation for new converts. It was a time focused on learning the core beliefs. It was like an incubator for those preparing to see their old lives washed away and embracing a new way of living. The early church joined these new believers in fasting and prayer as an encouragement.
As the church started to baptize infants the practice maintained some of the focus but turned into a 40-day period focused more on repentance and penance. The Catholic Church introduced mandatory minimum practices regarding the eating of meat on certain days. The 40 days came from the period of time that Jesus fasted in the wilderness where he ate nothing and was tempted by the devil.
As the practices have evolved over time, I think the purpose of Lent was lost a bit along the way. Lent was a time of incubation and preparation. I believe this focus must remain central in the season. As we abstain from food and other things in our lives, the lack we feel should increase our reliance on God and turn our focus towards him. It should help clarify where our true sustenance is found. This takes purpose and training.
I found out recently there are still a number of churches that have the practice of baptizing on Easter. This excites me. Baptism is an act of obedience that reflects what we celebrate in Easter. Our old selves are put in the ground with Jesus and we are raised to new life.
Lent should be a season where we are more keenly focused and reliant on God. It is a season of reflection and learning. Lent becomes lost when all we do is abstain from certain foods or practices. I would argue that Lent then becomes meaningless (though well intentioned).
As we continue on in this season, it is important to note this season is not supposed to be easy. I think part of the reason the whole church and not just the new converts participated in Lent is because it is something we need encouragement in. I understand Jesus went alone into the wilderness and endured the temptations of Satan, but Jesus is God and we are not. Partnering with each other to endure and redirect our attention to God is an important function of our brothers and sisters at this time.
Let us in anticipation of the harvest to come be vigilant in the season we have been called to. Not just following the letter of the law, but the spirit of the traditions. Let us turn our focus and reliance not on another created thing, but to God.
Whether you have started observing Lent or not, I would encourage you to look at how this season can best serve your increased reliance on God. I would recommend trying to simplify your life and getting to know the living God in intimate ways. Reflect on Jesus in the wilderness and the early church focusing on preparation.
As I write this the song lyrics from an old Brian Doerksen song comes to mind
“I lift my eyes up
Unto the mountains
Where does my help come from?
My help comes from you
Maker of heaven
Creator of the earth.
Oh, how I need you, Lord
You are my only hope.
You’re my only prayer.
So I will wait for you
To come and rescue me
Come and give me life.”
Lent should help us realize that these song lyrics reflect our constant state. Through stripping away the things we turn to instead of Jesus and focusing on him, we are able to see what brings true life. It prepares us to experience in all the fullness the celebration of the new life in Jesus we find in Easter. Like Jesus in the desert, we will find moments when we are tempted to turn away and try to find life in other things. (Read Luke 4)
Of note, the story of Jesus in the desert is what directly precedes Jesus’ public ministry. Although at times it might seem like a waste, Jesus models the importance of this season in our lives. May all you who read this be encouraged in this season to become keenly aware of your need for God, knowing true repentance as you strip away that which holds you back from the life God has waiting for you.