Last year on Ash Wednesday, a kind woman from the congregation I serve asked me, “Why Lent? Why should Christians observe a season called Lent?”
She was a longtime Christian, but had never before taken part in any Lenten observance, since most of her life she was a member of churches that did not “do” Lent. We had a great conversation.
The topic of Lent brings up the whole topic of the “church calendar” in general—the yearly cycle of seasons shared by most Christians throughout the world (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many Protestants). Now, the church calendar is not fixed in Scripture. Rather, it has developed in the common worship life of the Christian churches through the centuries.
So if it is not in the Bible, why use it?
It is helpful to remember first of all that Lent is just as much a part of the church calendar as are Christmas and Easter. Even many churches who do not use of the rest of the church calendar celebrate Christmas and Easter. At Christmas we celebrate God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ to save us, and at Easter we celebrate the victory that comes by Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
The celebrations of Easter and Christmas convey the focal messages of the Christian faith. I am grateful for these seasons and celebrations that give me a strong reminder of how God is saving us in Jesus Christ. They provide a crucial focus for me as a disciple of Jesus, and put the whole church all on the same page. Still, why add Lent into the mix?
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Christian preacher and theologian, liked to say, omnis Christi actio nostra est instructio—“every action of Christ is for our instruction.” To grow into maturity as disciples of Jesus requires that we attend to the whole life of Jesus, not only to his birth and resurrection. Through Jesus’ whole life among us, God is working to save, to heal, to drive out demons, to teach us, to redeem creation.
The season of Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. During Lent we remember that important part of Jesus’ life when he dwelt fasting in the desert for forty days, and was tempted by the devil. Where Adam and Eve gave in to the serpent’s temptation, Jesus does not: even in self-denial, Jesus is victorious over temptation.
And late in Lent, during Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, we remember Jesus’ suffering and death to save us. The day is so much brighter when you have been through the darkness. To see the light of Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter, you have to acknowledge the suffering of his execution that precedes it.
In Lent, we are attentive to the parts of Jesus’ life—his self control, his patience, his faithfulness even in suffering—that we hope to gain as his disciples. I have found a yearly observance of Lent helpful in this respect.
Lent is Not New Year's Resolutions Round Two
Many people give up something during Lent. But in our culture, fixated on self-improvement as we are, this can result in a big misunderstanding: we start (even if only in the back of our minds) to think of a Lenten fast in terms of a diet! But Lent is not New Year's Resolutions Round Two! Lent is not about us! Lent is about Jesus Christ.
In Lent we might give up something, do a specific prayer discipline, or change something to push ourselves spiritually. But the point is not self-improvement. The point is not even just self-denial. The point is to feel a little discomfort, a little pain, and by that to be constantly reminded of the love of our Savior Jesus Christ, who denied himself for our salvation.
If you observe Lent with prayer and fasting, use that prayer and fasting first of all to remember Jesus. If Lent is not about getting to know Jesus Christ better, it really is a waste of time.