What Lent is All About

Many Christians throughout the world who worship in historic branches of the Church participate in a special liturgical season during the forty days leading up to Easter. This forty-day period is known as the season of Lent.

Since Easter is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his victory over sin and mortality, Lent is the time when Christians remember everything he had to endure leading up to that victory — his suffering, betrayal, and ultimately his self-sacrifice upon the cross for our sins.

You may be wondering, why forty? Forty days are chosen for Lent to recall the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness of Judea before he began his public ministry (see Matthew 4 & Luke 4). Indeed, throughout the Bible, forty-day periods are often associated with testing or trials.

Devout believers may choose to identify with their Lord by fasting from certain meals or foods during Lent; by cutting out many of their regular luxuries like sweets or alcohol; and/or by abstaining from various forms of entertainment. (Social media fasts, for example, are common these days.)

The Origins of Lent

While our English word “Lent” is derived from an Old English term for “Spring,” this season has historically been known by the Latin name “quadragesima” (meaning “fortieth”), as well as simply “the Great Fast.”

The Great Fast has been attested since the earliest days of the church, being first mentioned in a letter from St. Irenaeus (ca. AD 180) to Victor, Bishop of Rome. Irenaeus states that while early Christians observed a freedom in whether they were “bound to fast one day, others two days, others still more, while others forty,” nonetheless a practice of fasting before Easter had been established “not… in our time, but long before in that of our predecessors…” [1]

In the Apostolic Tradition, a book of liturgical instructions attributed to St. Hippolytus of Rome and likely completed sometime between AD 215-230, there is mention of a mandatory fast for at least one to two days before the Easter celebration, although those who can may fast longer (chapter 29). The encouragement to fast longer soon became the norm, so that by the time of St. Athanasius in the 330s AD the Church throughout the world had established a firm tradition of observing forty days of Lenten fasting together.

At the tail end of the 300s AD, St. John Chrysostom preached a famous Easter sermon (one that is still recited frequently to this day) in which he mentions the Lenten fast. He invites all to celebrate Easter and embrace God’s gospel of forgiveness, regardless of whether they fasted the full forty days or not:

“Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.” [2]

Thus, while some contemporary Christians hesitate to observe Lent out of concern that it focuses on works-righteousness or that it was a late invention of Roman Catholicism, this evidence from the early Church shows that Lent is actually one of the most ancient Christian practices, and a lengthy period of fasting was originally optional.

From the start, Lent was intended to be a voluntary devotional practice to help one reflect on the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. And as a shared tradition, Lenten observance helps knit the Christian community closer together, as believers mark the season and encourage one another in our fasting and our feasting.

Common Lenten Practices

Since Lent focuses on Christ’s sufferings, it is a time when Christians consider the harsh realities and consequences of our human selfishness and sin.

We recall that it is our own rebellion against God that led to our need for a Savior.

We remember with gratitude that Jesus chose to leave his eternal glory in heaven, enter our world as a humble human being, and suffer pain and death on our behalf (see Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:14-18).

We temper our false expectations of earthly comfort and prosperity, and remember that it is “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

Because of this emphasis, in more liturgical traditions the daily Scripture readings and weekly sermons during Lent focus extensively on our need to battle sin in our own selves and to seek God’s grace to amend our lives (see Romans 6; 1 Corinthians 6:9-20). Some congregations may practice the “Stations of the Cross,” and may even redecorate their sanctuaries to appear more somber and bare, restoring them to beauty at the Easter celebration.

In addition to the various forms of fasting and abstinence mentioned above, many Christians observe Lent by scheduling more time in their day for prayer. Indeed, fasting from one or two meals a day is typically meant to allow more time for prayer, Scripture reading, or silent contemplation and reflection.

Almsgiving is another key Lenten practice. Just as Jesus expected his disciples to practice fasting at times (see Matthew 6:16-18), he also expected them to pray (Matt 6:5-13) and to give to the poor and needy (Matt 6:2-4).

Indeed, one great way to celebrate Lent (for those with financial means) is to pause from buying luxuries or eating out at restaurants and instead give that saved money to others or to charity, connecting one’s fasting to giving. Just be sure to keep in mind Jesus’s teaching about not doing these things for show, but merely as one’s personal devotion to God!

Since Jesus teaches that we shouldn’t make a big public show of our fasting, those observing Lent are encouraged to break fast any time they are offered food or drink as hospitality — for example, if you attend a wedding or birthday party, it’s good to join in the festivities if it would be awkward or create offense for you to abstain. In such situations, it’s more important to practice love for your neighbor.

But, of course, as I often have to remind myself, this isn’t an excuse to seek out occasions to break your fast! It’s all about whether or not you would be making others uncomfortable by your abstinence. The entire point, after all, is to grow in awareness of our own selfish tendencies and of our need for God’s grace in our lives.

“Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus”

Whether or not you keep the traditional forty days of Lent, it is good to make time regularly to recall all that Jesus has done for you and what that should mean for how we live our lives. Why not join the millions of Christians who have set aside the time before Easter for just this purpose? As St. Chrysostom has already so eloquently reminded us, even at the eleventh hour (or, at the time I’m writing this, about a week and a half out), it is not too late to join in.

As we look forward to Easter and the great victory of Christ, we first make time to acknowledge our great need for his mercy. We create space for prayer and giving, and we draw near with anticipation. We fast, knowing that the great meal of Easter will taste all the better for our hunger!

And we find the meaning of our own individual stories — our joys and heartaches, our triumphs and sorrows — wrapped up in the one great story of our Messiah as he trods the lonely path toward Calvary, to the glory that comes only through sacrifice. During Lent we, too, look toward the cross and echo the words of Jesus’s disciple, Thomas, as he said, “Let us go too so that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Let us keep the fast and die to ourselves, in the hope of eternal life with him.

[1] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus, in Against Heresies: The Complete English Translation from the First Volume of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Ex Fontibus edition, 2017, pp. 602-603).

[2] The Easter sermon of John Chrysostom (circa 400 AD), accessed from Anglicans Online.

Categories: anglicanism, Historical Theology, Practical/Devotional

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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