Font to Table: What is Lent?

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The post-Reformation observance of Lent is both commemorative and penitential

Dr. Seuss once humorously remarked, “They say I’m old fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!” One of the blessings of the church calendar is that it interrupts our “progress” with slow, annual rhythms that serve followers of Jesus by focusing our attention upon what matters most: Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. Such is the case with the season of Lent.

The term “Lent” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten,” a synonym for the season of spring—a time when the days lengthen. As nature begins to awaken from the death of winter, so Christians celebrate the renewal of life in Christ who has defeated the enemies of sin and death.

As nature begins to awaken from the death of winter, so Christians celebrate the renewal of life in Christ who has defeated the enemies of sin and death

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). The forty fast days of Lent, known as the Quadragesima, do not include Sundays, so the six Sundays within the season are not of Lent but in Lent. Lent is observed by many Christian traditions including Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and others.

Lent is considered a preparatory season for Easter and serves liturgically as a journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. The Gospel reading traditionally used on the last Sunday before Lent sets the tone for the season:

And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” (Luke 18:32—33).

In the early church, Lent was a period of preparing new converts called “catechumens” for the Sacrament of Baptism on Easter Vigil. This period included fasting, instruction, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. By the medieval period, however, Lenten observances began to take on more austere penitential practices and works-righteousness prevalent for that era, and much of the joyful expectation of Easter was lost. The post-Reformation observance of Lent, as Luther Reed notes, is both commemorative and penitential: “It regards the season as a time of special spiritual opportunity to contemplate the Passion of Christ as an incentive for self-examination, repentance, and growth in faith and grace.” (Lutheran Liturgy, 491).

The post-Reformation observance of Lent is both commemorative and penitential

I have found that contemporary observances of Lent tend to more carefully balance the penitential themes with the baptismal, always keeping an eye toward Easter Sunday, so that we do not fall prey to an inward, self-focused spirituality that robs us of the joy of what God in Christ Jesus has accomplished for us in His saving work. While it is a restrained liturgical season, omitting the Gloria in Excelsis and Alleluias, it provides believers with an opportunity to increase their devotion to God personally and corporately.

Typical spiritual disciplines that I have found beneficial to the observance of Lent include the following:

  • On Ash Wednesday, many Christians follow the tradition of having their foreheads marked with ashes in the sign of the cross to remind them of the wages of sin, which is death. The ashes symbolize repentance as the prophet Joel calls us to “return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).
  • Many churches conduct mid-week Lenten services where pastors will preach on a particular theme or topic relevant to the season. Attending these services provide times of increased devotion and opportunities for spiritual growth.
  • Some Christians choose some form of fasting. This could take the traditional form of not eating during daylight hours or giving up some habit or behavior during Lent as an exercise in prayerful self-denial. While self-denial and fasting can be useful, be mindful that such exercises should not be done in order to merit the approval of God, but draw your attention upon what Christ Jesus gave up for you on the cross.
  • Many Christians not only deny themselves something during the season but add some beneficial discipline to fill the gap, such as Scripture reading, prayer, volunteer service, or reading through a Lenten devotional with their families. Chad Bird’s Lenten devotional, In the Shadow of the Cross, is a great resource for this time. My congregation is using it this year around their dinner tables during the season.

Whatever you, or your church, may choose to do this Lententide, let the gradual for Lent—that short verse read or chanted between the Old Testament and Epistle readings on Sunday—mark the emphasis and piety of the season: “O Come, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.”