People ask questions about Lent all the time. While I put some of the following information into a post about Easter, I thought it would be worth removing it from that post, and doing it here as a separate topic as well as digging a little deeper.
Lent comes from the Latin word for Spring and is a 40-day time for preparation before celebrating Easter. It started as a time of preparation prescribed for baptismal candidates since baptisms were often done on Easter but is now a time that all people use to prepare for the Festival of the Resurrection. The Council of Nicea in 325 AD set the number of days for Lent at 40. Over time the 40 days came to be associated with Jesus’ time in the wilderness (Matt. 4) and the time that the Israelites spent in their wandering (Numbers 14:34). In 329 AD, Bishop Athanasius (a big deal in the church) wrote a letter to his congregation asking them to keep a fast of 40 days which appears to be one of the first statements about fasting in connection to the Lenten season. Pope Leo the Great also described the purpose of Lent in a Lenten sermon where he described Lent as a time “to prepare souls for a fruitful commemoration of the mystery of Easter; as a time of inner purification and sanctification, or penance for sins past, or breaking off sinful habits, of the exercise of virtues, especially almsgiving, reconciliation, and the laying aside of enmity and hatred.”
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which started in France around the 6th Century. The imposition of ashes upon the foreheads of those gathered to worship came to be a universally adopted sign of penitence and as a reminder of human mortality by the 10th century. Some churches even refrained from performing weddings or playing the organ in order to retain the somber tone of the season. Of course, we remember Jesus’ resurrection every day of every year, but we take time during Lent to remember the teachings of the Christian faith (some churches emphasize catechesis during the time) and to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
Many hear all of this history and think, “Why is this such a big deal? We shouldn’t listen to human traditions!” Well, we should NEVER listen to human tradition for our salvation, but tradition is a part of who we are as humans. Even those who say “I don’t like churches that follow traditions” often don’t realize that any church they attend has traditions rather the church overtly say so or not. Orders of service, dates on a congregation’s calendar, special yearly events, and so on are all traditions, and when it comes to the historic church year we join with the saints through history to celebrate significant events in the history of our Christian faith.
When Lutherans talk about Lent and other church traditions, we don’t place a salvific imperative on our traditions. What I mean by that is, we don’t observe Lent for the sake of our salvation. Instead, we observe Lent as just one of many ways to worship our Lord and set our hearts and minds in order through prayer and fasting in response to our salvation. Some people might give up a luxury of some sort in order to give to the poor and reorient themselves to a life of selfless giving that may have been covered over by impulsive behaviors over the course of the year. Others set aside additional time to pray by fasting/giving up something that consumes time each day. Do people misuse Lent? Of course, we’re sinners. Tons of people give up carbs or decide to use it as a great time to get in shape through a workout regiment. Is it good to take care of our bodies? Yes. Can we plan a workout regiment in correlation with Lent? Sure. But Lent doesn’t exist for people to get in shape. It exists and came about to get us Spiritually into shape through prayer and worship.
Some churches have traditions about abstaining from eating meat. There’s nothing wrong if someone wants to give up the nicer things in life like steak so they can either spend more time in prayer or give more money from not eating nice food. The problem comes when someone says, “You ate a T-bone steak on a Thursday during lent?! How dare you! Pray for forgiveness.” We pray for forgiveness when we sin, not when we don’t observe our own practices for prayer and devotional life. We strive to pray and worship more so our life is oriented around Christ rather than doing things to make sure we’re “doing enough to please God.” Christ stood in our place. Christ did all that was necessary. We can pray that God will encourage us in our faith and that the Holy Spirit would be with us to pray faithfully, but dietary laws are gone as is the burden of the law on our back. Christ has fulfilled all of the law and in his name there is forgiveness.
While some people try to avoid the church year observations because those are evil human traditions, there are others who stick so closely that they practically worship the calendar rather than the God around whom and to whom the calendar was meant to point. People come to church on Christmas and Easter because they’re apparently “more holy.” I guess, right? They’re the big celebrations so there must be more Holy Spirit involved that night or day. No. Not really. They’re just days when we remember some big deals in the life of God’s people. Those big deals? God coming in the flesh (Christmas), Christ dying and rising again from the dead (Good Friday and Easter). Traditions bind us together, but they shouldn’t turn our eyes from the one true God. Lent prepares us for the Easter celebration just as Advent is joyous but still Lenten in its tone of preparation for the big celebration.
So, enjoy lent. Take time to pray and prepare for our Easter celebration. Not as a command of God – other than to pray continually – but as a way to get ready and set aside time to praise your creator, savior, and sustainer. If you’d like a helpful guide to Christian prayer and devotion, take a look at this devotional challenge book by Pastor Brian Wolfmueller. You can also check out his discussions on Christian prayer and devotion on IssuesEtc.
Have questions or want to chat? Let me know.