In an age where churches are seeking to be culturally relevant and resist outdated forms of worship, many pastors have abandoned elements of the church calendar that feel irrelevant. Lent is one of those.
If we come from a Protestant faith tradition, particularly a more non-liturgical variety, this practice often mystifies us. We might see our Catholic and “high church” friends practice Lent. If you’re like me, we’re publicly glad that we don’t have to give up Coke or coffee for 40 days. But privately, do you wonder if there is something helpful about this historic church practice?
What is Lent?
First, we should clarify that Lent is not a biblically commanded practice, but it is biblically informed by teachings on fasting, repentance and mourning. The church began practicing some form of Lent as early as the 2nd century and it is an annual time of repentance and fasting as we reflect on the need for Christ’s death and resurrection.
The word “Lent” comes from the old English word for lengthen referring to the lengthening of days that is happening in the Spring as Easter approaches. Lent became an annual time of deep introspection on the spiritual reality that God formed humanity out of dust and ashes (the significance of Ash Wednesday) and through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus made us into new creatures.
Lent is a 40-day journey where we acknowledge and own the depth of our depravity so we can more wondrously appreciate the splendor of the Gospel–the good news that we can find complete forgiveness and wholeness in Jesus Christ alone.
The number 40 is significant as it refers to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and praying before beginning his earthly ministry. It also refers to the 40 days of flooding for Noah, the 40 days of wandering in the desert by Israel, and the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai prior to receiving the 10 Commandments.
When is Lent?
Lent is the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday on the church calendar. It’s counted as 40 days because there are 40 non-Sundays in that period.
Because Easter is celebrated based on a lunar calendar, the timing of Lent is likewise continually rotating year-to-year. This calendar can help you understand how we determine the timing of Lent and Easter each year.
6 Reasons to Celebrate Lent
You might be looking for motivation to celebrate Lent. Here are six reasons that help me. Perhaps you can add more in the comments below.
- Knowing our need for grace helps us appreciate Easter all the more.
- Reflection upon our depravity that leads to confession and repentance are essential ingredients to our ability to live out the Gospel.
- Our modern world calls us daily to get better whereas the Gospel calls us to repent of our propensity to rely on our good deeds as a substitute for Christ’s perfect deed.
- Just like the earth has seasons for planting, growing, harvesting and preparing, our soul needs a season of preparation for the seed of the Gospel.
- Confession is meant to be done both privately and corporately. Lent gives the church a chance to repent together of our corporate and public sins.
- The psalmist proclaims, “You turned my mourning turns into dancing.” If we spend little time and energy in mourning, our dancing will be lifeless or routine.
There are likely many reasons why you celebrate Lent. I pray God show you the power of the Cross as your hope.
What should I do during Lent?
This question has often been answered, “What shouldn’t I do during Lent?” The point of fasting is to give something up that has great meaning to us so we can gain something of greater value. So many will give up a daily or weekly meal so they spend extra time in prayer.
An important point here is to be sure to give something up you treasure and then to replace that with something you desire more, but don’t seem to create time or space for. There is not a right and wrong answer here, but there are better choices and the right answer for me may not be for you. Short answer: ask God to show you something that you’re clinging to instead of him.
For example, if you don’t drink Coca-Cola products, fasting from Coke is pretty meaningless. However, if you visit Starbucks every day for your daily mocha latte, giving that up for 40 days could allow you several benefits: 1) save $160 that you could give to charity; 2) spend those 15 minutes waiting in line praying for your friend who needs Jesus; 3) allow your withdrawals from caffeine to remind you where to find true life-giving power each day.
Some of my Anglican friends focus not on what they will abstain from during Lent, but on what they will add during this season that will enhance their spiritual disciplines. For example, one friend is adding an intense physical exercise plan during this year’s Lenten season as he finds that discipline has value across all aspects of life.
Here are some ideas of things you could do:
Spend these 40 days to focus on God and His Word. Pastor Rick Warren has created a helpful resource called 40 Days in the Word. There are many others if you don’t like that one. The point is to make a plan to read the scriptures, pray and journal daily for 40 days starting on March 5.
Find a prayer partner: One of the most memorable Lenten seasons I ever spent was when I found a man in my church to go through this together. We agreed to fast once a week at lunch and instead met to pray and talk about what God was teaching us. It was great because it was only a 6-week commitment, but God met us in some profound ways. Maybe you could find someone at your church to meet with for six weeks?
Read a book about the Cross. C.J. Mahaney once said that he tries to daily read a chapter from a book that reflects on the Gospel. His book Living the Cross Centered Life is a great place to start. I also think John Stott’s classic The Cross of Christ is worth a regular read.
Resources for the Lenten Journey
Some New York musicians created a project a couple years ago based on some historical Lenten texts called Songs for Lent. There are some hauntingly beautiful arrangements on this project. I particularly appreciated “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed.” Here is another based on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well:
Reggie Kidd, my professor and friend, turned me on to the works of Georges Rouault. This blog has a series of Lenten reflections on various paintings by Rouault that shape the heart for appreciating how God’s mercy meets us in the misery of our sin.
Sovereign Grace Music has several projects that serve well during Lent. I particularly like the Songs for the Cross-Centered Life and Grace Has Come. One of the songs from this second project that haunts and invites me is “Judge of the Secret”:
Imagine what God might do in our midst while we open our hearts and lives to His immense love for us. Pray that He will change the way we see our own sin and His grace.
Imagine how he might change our church, our city and our world. Let’s covenant to pray expectantly together for He is on the move.
Your Turn: How are you practicing Lent this year?