Lent is a season within the Christian calendar that either seems to be overlooked or observed with strict guidelines. What is lent is still a confusing topic for many Christians. We may have childhood memories of pancake day, or Shrove Tuesday, and think wasn’t that something to do with Lent? Or maybe that wasn’t part of your upbringing? Our knowledge of ‘practicing Lent’ will largely depend on our background of faith, but is Lent something we would all benefit from engaging in?
What is Lent?
Lent is a period of time in the Christian calendar leading up to Easter. It is counted from Ash Wednesday up to Holy Saturday – that is the forty-day period, although it is more than forty days. This is because the forty days do not include Sundays – as Sunday is always regarded as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life that we have in Him.
When is Lent in 2023?
In 2023 lent will start on Wednesday 22nd February and the forty days will end on Saturday 8th April – although some may say that the practise of Lent ends on Maundy Thursday (6th April) when the vigil and traditions for celebrating Easter weekend begin.
What is the Original Meaning of Lent?
To understand what is Lent, and why some people celebrate, we need to look back at how the tradition developed. From as early as the 4th century the church had begun establishing a period of concentrated prayer and fasting, as a time of preparation, for those who were going to be baptised at Easter. The highlight of the Christian calendar the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, is for many the perfect symbolic occasion to be baptised. The whole community of faith would join with those who were preparing and use the time for introspection to reflect and repent.
Who Celebrates Lent?
Christian denominations, either protestant or catholic, that follow liturgical worship have traditionally practised Lent. It has always been associated with ‘high church’ those that follow a more formal pattern of worship. The non-conformist churches or chapels deliberately moved away from following these set practices, believing in new freedom and personal responsibility.
I went to a Church of Wales school, which followed the more formal worship traditions. Faith was important and the different ways of worship were respected. I remember that for Scripture lessons, or Religious Education, the class was split into two groups those who were Church of Wales or those, like myself, who were ‘Chapel’ and part of one of the non-conformist denominations – Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal.
Now it seems that many Evangelical Churches are looking again at traditional practices and beginning to incorporate them into their own experience of Christian living. It could be that as the secular hold on our society becomes stronger, we are looking for ways to increase our own awareness of spirituality. In the fast pace and busyness of life, it is good to have markers and to be aware of the rhythm of the seasons.
Is the Word Lent in the Bible?
The word ‘lent’ some say originates from an old English word, lencten, meaning ‘spring season’. The time of year when the days lengthen, when the darkness of winter is coming to an end and the light of spring is beginning to rise. The time leading to Easter when we celebrate Jesus as the ‘light of the world’ defeating darkness for eternity! The word ‘Lent’ does not appear in the Bible and was not a formal practise in the early church. What is Lent then, and what does it mean to us today?
Fasting During Lent
The denominations that traditionally have practised Lent, Catholic and Protestant, have dietary rules which they follow during this period. It is a time of abstaining from certain foods, eating smaller portions, or fasting complete meals. But the evangelical or non-conformist denominations, from the reformation on, eliminated these practices that seemed to focus on ‘works.’ The thought of following rules and regulations went against their teaching of salvation by grace alone.
What is Lent now, for many Christians, is more of a personal choice. It is a period that is linked to Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness at the beginning of His ministry. It is a time where we can choose to fast, reflect, repent, and ultimately at the end of the period, celebrate!
Why did Jesus Fast for 40 Days?
Biblical numerology is the study of numbers in the Bible and assigning meaning to those numbers. For example, the number seven signifies completion. The number three is thought to represent divine perfection, as in the trinity. And the number forty signifies a period of probation or trial, such as the forty years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness.
Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, before His ministry began, for a period of prayer, fasting, and spiritual trial. His testing was based on the pattern of Israel’s time in the wilderness where they were tested by God to reveal what was in their heart. Jesus was faithful in resisting the devil’s temptation. Each time He responded with what was in His heart – the truth of the word of God. Jesus demonstrated wholehearted devotion to God. Now He is our faithful and merciful high priest who can help us whenever we are tempted!
Fasting is a test of commitment to God because it requires effort and discipline. There are calls to fast in the Old and New Testaments, it is an established practise in the Bible. Jesus gave his disciples guidance for when they fast, the implication being that it would be something they would practise on a regular basis. Matthew 6:16-18 Bible Gateway.
How Do you Fast for Lent?
Lent traditionally focuses on prayer, fasting, and giving. These three principles are often referred to as the three pillars of Lent. These are the ways that many Christians are choosing to adopt to practise Lent today. Not necessarily with a set of given rules but by their own prayerful reflection, asking their own question, what is Lent going to be in my life this year? Am I going to find a way to mark this period of time thoughtfully, and significantly, to prepare for the Easter celebration?
There are a number of ways to fast for Lent, starting with the traditional way of reducing or withdrawing food, for a meal, on one day a week or even every day. A popular choice is to fast your favorite foods, particularly sweet treats! Some people decide to fast other habits, those things that we know are not particularly good for us but which we enjoy. We know what applies to us, it could be too much coffee, social media, online games, or TV – these are all becoming popular choices. Fasting of any kind is not easy – but it is not meant to be either.
What are the Benefits of Practicing Lent?
Whatever we choose to do for Lent the purpose is to prompt us to pray and seek the presence of God. Whether it is by creating a space and giving more time for spiritual reflection through Scripture reading. It could be additional clarity to pray, worship, and listen to God. Or the sacrifice that we make could act as a little nudge throughout the day, turning our thoughts to thanksgiving and praise.
What I’ve learned through practicing Lent is that forty days is a long time – and it takes determined effort to give up something you enjoy for that period. The obvious benefit is the clarity that fasting, pausing and reflecting can bring. But if we create extra time and space for God there are always going to be benefits.
“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”Romans 6:22-23
Lent is a time that we can use for seeking greater intimacy with the Lord Jesus, an opportunity to actively pursue His presence, and to know Him more! If we choose in some small way to follow Jesus’ example of obedience and sacrifice this can lead us beautifully to Easter – and when it finally arrives we are ready to celebrate!
Are you choosing to practice Lent this year?
And if you are looking for a devotional book then check out these great choices: Lent Books Ten Top Choices!