What is Lent?
By The Rt. Rev. James Stanton | March 2, 2020
Lent is the period of time before Easter when Christians fast, pray, and prepare themselves to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The period lasts forty days, recalling the time when Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, fasting and praying. (Matthew 4:1-11)
The term for this period in English is “Lent,” or “the Lenten season.” The word “lenten” is a shortened form of “lengthen,” because the season occurs in the Spring when the daylight hours appear to lengthen. “Lent” is an even shorter term. Today, both terms are simply regarded as specifically religious terms.
The origin of the idea of a Lenten fast in preparation for Easter is now lost in antiquity. Since Christians saw themselves as followers of the Lord Jesus, they would naturally want to imitate his own actions. They baptized newcomers because Jesus was baptized and called his disciples to “go into all the world and make disciples” by baptizing them. (Matthew 28:19) They kept the special meal that Jesus himself initiated and asked his disciples to do “in remembrance” of him. (Luke 22:14-19) If Jesus had fasted and prayed before undertaking the mission that led to his death, surely it would be right for them to do so before celebrating his resurrection.
We may not know when such a practice began, but we do know that by the second century (the 100s AD), Christians in many places were engaging in a pre-Easter fast.
The period of Lent is forty days long, but does not include any Sundays! Every Sunday is a feast day because it was on Sunday that the Lord was raised from death. So, if you count back from Holy Saturday, and take out the Sundays, you wind up at a Wednesday as the first day of Lent. We call that Ash Wednesday. The Sundays in this period are called “Sundays in Lent,” not “Sundays of Lent.” And note this: each Sunday is a feast day – a day to enjoy, even if you engage in a fast in the rest of Lent!
What do we do in Lent? Many people give up something they especially like or desire. They “fast” from chocolate or other sweets, or they give up wine, or they refrain from eating meat. Most people also take on a special discipline: they pray more often, they read a Gospel through, they attend special midweek communion services, or they meditate on Christian podcasts. It is also appropriate to give of ourselves to special needs: to help out in food banks, undertake special mission trips, or give special gifts to help the poor. The opportunities are endless – the key to a good Lent is to focus and make an intentional commitment.
When Jesus taught about praying, fasting, or giving (Matthew 6:1-18) he stressed one point: whatever we do, we do for God, not to be seen or praised by others. We are not earning God’s love from such practices: that is already God’s gift to us. Rather, when we undertake special disciplines in Lent, we are seeking to love God in return more fully and to glorify Him in His world and in our lives!