Four Thoughts on Lent
1. Lent is a Christian tradition dating back to before the fourth century.
Lent - derived from a word meaning “spring” - was a time of year used as preparation for the feast of Easter. Athanasius wrote a series of letters to the churches concerning feasts and other topics. He mentions a forty-day fast preceding Easter in the second festal letter in 330 AD. Ten years later, in 340 AD, Athanasius wrote to churches in Egypt instructing them to “proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast, lest, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should be derided, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in these days.”
People have kept the Lenten fast in many ways through the years. For some, it includes abstaining from meat and wine. For others, it means giving up some specific indulgence for the season. John Calvin defined such a “temporary fast” as a period of restraint “when we retrench somewhat from our accustomed mode of living, either for one day or a certain period, and prescribe to ourselves a stricter and severer restraint in the use of that ordinary food” (Institutes VI.12.18).
2. Lent is modeled on the Lord’s forty-day fast in the wilderness.
Jesus was tempted in the wilderness during his fast (Matthew 4:1-11), and the fast is presented in the Scripture as the segway between Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17) and the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4:17). Fasting is also a practice assumed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount which follows in Matthew 5-7.
Lent traditionally lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter. This adds up to 40 days if you exclude Sundays from the count. Sundays were considered permanent feast days by ancient Christians and were not considered part of the fasting period.
Also of interest, forty days is the period of rain during the flood of Noah (Genesis 7:4). Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days receiving the Law, and “he neither ate bread nor drank water” (Exodus 24:28; Deuteronomy 9:9). The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, a punishment which was based on the forty days in which the spies had surveyed the promised land (Numbers 14:34). Elijah also famously fasted for forty days before communing with God on the mountain (1 Kings 19:8).
3. Lent - like all holy days or seasons - should not make us judgmental.
Paul specifically addresses holy days as a matter of personal choice and practice.
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:5-6).
Likewise, Isaiah renounces any fast that leads to quarreling and fighting (Isaiah 58:4). Fasts were never supposed to be for show or to be seen by others (Isaiah 58:5; Matthew 6:16-18). The fast God desires is one that leads to humility and acts of charity (Isaiah 58:6-8).
4. Lent is an opportunity to focus on repentance and dependence on God.
American culture glorifies wealth, prosperity, and convenience. Giving up even some of that for a season serves as a reminder of higher things.
William Willimon explains that Lent is an opportunity to listen to the preaching of John the Baptist before Jesus arrives at Easter: “His sermons could not be entitled, ‘Be Good to Yourself.’ This prophetic ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ appears ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He is not the Christ. John is the one who gets us ready. How does one prepare for this new age? Repent, change your ways, and get washed.”
As Edna Hong once wrote: “The reason Lent is so long is that the path to the truth of oneself is long and snagged with thorns, and at the very end one stands alone before the broken body crowned with thorns upon the cross.”
The old poet Robert Herrick perhaps says it best in his work, “To Keep a True Lent.”
Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean ?
From fat of veals and sheep ?
Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
The platter high with fish ?
Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
A downcast look and sour ?
No ; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate ;
To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent ;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin ;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.