Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of Lent. For many of us, this season may mean little more than faint memories of noticing some coworkers walk around with dirt on their foreheads, going to fish fry’s on Fridays, or seeing the sanctuary draped in purple for a few Sundays.
However, the season of Lent is not merely a ritual of the traditional churches we once attended, but a historical practice of the Christian Church for almost 2,000 years. Therefore, we want to consider how we can join in with the historic church and celebrate the season of Lent this year together.
HISTORY OF LENT AND THE CHURCH
The Worship Source Book tells us that “Lent is a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate Good Friday and Easter.” Beginning around the third or fourth century, the Christian church observed the season of Lent as a way to prepare their hearts to observe the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ on Easter weekend.
The 40 days of fasting are found multiple times in the Bible, namely in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Because of its Biblical significance, the church observed 40 days of fasting and repentance leading up to Easter weekend. These 40 days begin on Ash Wednesday and carry on for six weeks (excluding Sundays). Fasting helps us, as the church, unite in Christ’s fasting and suffering to better appreciate our union with Christ in his glory.
And while today many Christians consider Lent a Roman Catholic tradition, observing Lent is our tradition as well. In the early centuries, there was no Roman Catholic - Protestant divide in the church. So the early church is our church history, and the early Christian traditions are our traditions also.
Church historian Hughes Old does admit that Lent picked up steam in the church as she “became obsessed with penance”, especially in the Middle Ages. However, he reminds us that Lent always was “above all, [a season] of fasting”.
PURPOSE OF LENT TODAY
Therefore, while the church practices of Lent have changed over time, a few things have historically remained the same. This season is a period of 40 days where we anticipate the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. To give Easter its full effect, we must engage in the discipline of sobering reflection on why the Christ had to die.
It is our guilt and shame that drove Christ to the cross, and hisperfection that vindicated himself above death itself. While practices today differ, two main elements have remained constant.
First, during these 40 days we remember our lowliness and need for a Savior. Through fasting, reading and prayer, or a variety of other disciplines, we train our hearts to remember we are not the point of the story. Your role in God’s redemptive plan is the sinner who is “dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). We are not the hero and we are not the protagonist in our own story.
Through 40 days of fasting and preparation, we are training our hearts to believe the truth about ourselves. We are only united with a Savior because first we are united to sin.
Second, these 40 days allow us to repent and turn our hearts in gratefulness to our Savior. We remember our lowly state so our hearts are not turned to despair, but to Jesus. Repentance, by definition, is the act of turning away from something and toward something else.
Throughout Lent, it is our hope that our hearts turn from sin and the ways of the world that so quickly consume us. But we do not turn in vain or in blind faith. We turn to the solid Rock that is Christ. We discipline our hearts to long for a Savior more than anything else in the world and to find our satisfaction in him alone.
WAYS TO OBSERVE LENT TODAY
If you want to observe Lent for the first time, let me give a few quick practical ways to begin. In doing so, remember to choose something attainable and for the right reasons.
These practices should help you remember and repent. And our hope is that through this season, Good Friday and Easter will be a source of hope and worship in far greater ways, as you’ve prepared your heart to celebrate them.
(1) First, the historical practice is a 40-day Fast. If you choose this option, select something in your life that is a common, every day piece of your life, and do not partake in it for six weeks. This fasting could consist of some sort of food, drink, social media, technology, or daily habit that you currently have. And as you no longer partake in it, replace the time consuming that object with prayer that you would long for Christ with as much desire as you long for that worldly object.
(2) If the 40-day fast seems intimidating, maybe for your first season of practicing Lent you choose one day each week to fast from a specific object. This could mean that one day a week you fast from all foods and devote yourself to prayer and Scripture instead of meals. Or you could set aside one day where you turn your phone off and unplug from social media in order to devote yourself to the Lord. This is a great initial step for people who have never practiced Lent before.
(3) The church historically has seen the season of Lent as a time to prioritize alms-giving, or generosity. This Lent, instead of fasting from a specific food or practice, consider how you may be generous in new ways daily or weekly. This could look like setting aside $20 a week to give to someone in need; or you may be generous with your home and have a new person around your table that you model generosity and hospitality toward each week. Regardless of the amount or frequency, this practice allows our hearts to be others-focused as we near the greatest act of generosity in human history on the cross.
(4) Lastly, as you may have gathered from the previous point, Lent is not solely a season to just give up sugar or Instagram, but a season to devote yourself to the Lord and recognize your need for him. Therefore, another great potential practice may be to set aside the next 40 days to read through the gospels. You could select one and slowly read through the life of Jesus where you would end with the cross and resurrection on Easter weekend. Or, you could choose to read through all four gospels and read them in larger sections to watch the life and ministry of Jesus unfold. No matter the option you choose, this would be a great practice to focus yourself on the life of Jesus as we near Easter weekend.
As a Church, no matter how you choose to practice Lent, our desire is to help you prepare your heart for Good Friday and Easter. We pray these suggestions may help you prepare and repent as we long for our Savior.