What is Lent?
The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English (Germanic) word lente meaning “springtime.” It was a term used for the time in the church calendar between Epiphany and Easter, which happens in, you guessed it, Spring.
Regardless of the etymology of the word, Lent is a season of a 40-day preparation to celebrate Easter. It is a time to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and to embody a physical symbol of that remembrance. It is for this reason that Lent is most commonly observed as a 40-day fast. This is linked to the beginning of the gospel accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ own 40-day fast as he was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by Satan.
Lent creates a period, set aside, to remember our own frailty and our own inabilities, and our utter dependance on Jesus for everything in our lives. So often we think that we can do things on our own but we forget that we can’t even take a breath or tie our shoes without the assistance of Jesus Christ. Lent is a season designed to bring that to the forefront of our minds as we look forward to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Why should I Celebrate Lent?
To be clear, there is nothing in the Bible requiring the celebration or observance of the Lenten season. There is nothing in the Bible requiring fasting at all. But the Bible does speak to its spiritual benefits. Matthew 6, during Jesus’ largest sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, he tells his listeners of that fasting should not be done as the hypocrites do who distort their faces, but to make themselves unnoticeable as fasting to those who see them. Why? To not call attention to themselves. Then he says in Matthew 6:18 that there is a “reward” for those who observe fasting in this manner. This could be an eternal reward, it also could be a present spiritual reward (or both).
The primary element in Matthew 6 that we see concerning fasting is this idea that it is not to call attention to yourself. It is inherently an act of humility. Fasting as a special time set aside regardless of the season is an act of creating and remember our dependance on the Lord Jesus for sustenance and provision. Lent is a season that is intended to create and remember that dependence in a more prolonged way as we move physically and spiritually towards the cross. Lent is a time where our physical dependence (in fasting) coincides with our spiritual dependance (in salvation). They meet at the cross on Easter Sunday.
By devoting time to remembering, in humility, the forgiveness and salvation the Lord Jesus Christ purchased for you on the cross by submitting yourself to him in the weeks leading up to Eastern, he is faithful in revitalizing your soul and awakening your affections.
But I’m not Catholic.
Roman Catholicism formalized Lent by making it a requirement for spirituality. The Catechism of the Catholic Church #1438 states, “The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church's penitential practice.” This begs the question of the church’s penitential practices. Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1459 says, “Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called penance.” Essentially then, for the Roman Catholic practice, the observance of Lent is a means of “making amends” or “expiating” sin in the life of a believer.
This we must wholesale and dramatically reject. Christ’s work on the cross is the only satisfaction for the sin of an individual’s life. It was totally and perfectly satisfied there in his work, not ours.
Lent, as stated above, is not a requirement or an act of expiation or making up for something, but as a way of identifying with the temptation of Jesus and to physically/spiritually move our bodies and souls to the cross. To quote Charles Spurgeon from 1885, “It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, ‘Is this a law of the God of Jacob?’ and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.”
Though some Protestant pastors and theologians have contested celebrating Lent (John Calvin, John Owen, etc.) these were not so much controversies with Lent in and of itself but with the Roman Catholic Church and all that is associated with it in the 16th and 17th century. However, it must be noted that the season of Lent was observed shortly after the Council of Nicaea in 325A.D. which is prior to the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the most notable elements to consider here is the relationship between Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter. These two seasons are considered the “bookends” or the Church Year. The birth of Jesus and the death of Jesus. Regardless of historic Catholic associations to these things, the Roman Catholic Church does not own the rights to remembering the Lord and his work. We celebrate and observe Advent as a time of preparation and longing for the Messiah’s birth and second coming. In the same way, we are able to celebrate and observe Lent as a season of preparation and ongoing for the salvation work Jesus does for his people.
What are the Important Dates of Lent?
Lent begins on the 7th Wednesday before Easter. This is called “Ash Wednesday.” Traditionally, this is celebrated by attending an Ash Wednesday service to remember the text of Genesis 3:19, “you will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.” This begins the season remembering our own frailty and inability and dependence on Jesus.
The season continues through sunset on Good Friday.
Holy Week is a significant time in Lenten celebration.
Palm Sunday—Jesus enters Jerusalem as the symbolic lamb chosen to be killed for Passover. (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, and John 12:12-19)
Monday—Cleansing of the temple as a display of religious cleansing and consecration. (Matthew 21:12–22, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:13-17)
Tuesday—The Olivet Discourse where Jesus prophesied about the destruction of Jerusalem and about his second coming. (Matthew 21:23–24:51, Mark 11:20–13:37, Luke 20:1–21:36, and John 12:20–38)
Holy Wednesday—This is the day commemorating Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of Silver. (Matthew 26:15)
Maundy Thursday—Thursday of Holy Week is the establishment of communion, the Lord’s table. He washes the disciples' feet as a sign of humility, reappropriates the Passover Meal towards himself and goes to Gethsemane to pray and be arrested. (Matthew 26:17–75, Mark 14:12-72, Luke 22:7-62, and John 13:1-38)
Good Friday—This is the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. (Matthew 27:1-62, Mark 15:1-47, Luke 22:63-23:56, and John 18:28-19:37)
Silent Saturday--Burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea treated with spices purchased by Nicodemus. (Matthew 27:62-66, Mark 16:1, Luke 23:56, and John 19:40)
Resurrection Sunday—One of the most significant events of the Christian Faith. Jesus rose from the grave forever sealing our forgiveness and offering hope of a final resurrection. (Matthew 28:1-13, Mark 16:1-14, Luke 24:1-49, and John 20:1-23)
Holy Week carries much weight in the biblical narratives of the gospels. It is a significant week with many significant events leading up and including Jesus’ death and resurrection. During the Lenten season these days are important to keep in mind, to read the biblical texts, and to reflect on the eternal significance of the work of Christ during this week.
How do I celebrate Lent?
There is no “right” or “wrong” ways to celebrate or observe Lent. Just as there is no “right” or “wrong” way to celebrate and observe Advent. As long as there are a few key pieces in place, there is much liberty in how you go about it.
Fasting is an important part of Lent. We are physical creatures. We need food to survive. Fasting is an intentional giving up of what our bodies need to remember that the Lord is the one who keeps us alive, not food. Some will want to say that fasting does not need to be food. However, the point of food being what makes a fast an actual fast is because it is sacrificing something necessary for survival. Giving up TV or alcohol or dessert is not a proper fast because you do not need any of those things and it creates very little if any true dependence on Jesus to preserve you.
Because Lent is a season of preparation for Easter it makes sense that one of the key elements of celebrating is going through a process of preparation.
Preparation for Easter includes reading the passages of Scripture about Jesus’ temptation, Holy Week (as listed above). Meditate on 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, or even Old Testament stories such as the Exodus out of Egypt, and the sacrifice of Isaac.
Preparation for Easter also includes prayer. Some people enjoy writing down a daily prayer they pray specifically to remember their sin, their humility, and their need for Jesus to save them. With them written down each day it becomes a kind of ongoing Lenten devotional to use year after year.
Preparation for Easter also includes repentance. Consider a sin or sins in your heart that you are holding on to for some reason. Spend the season of Lent in dedicated prayer asking the Lord to reveal, forgive, and help to put to death those sins.
Preparation for Easter also includes showing compassion for others. Remembering our dependence on Jesus should cause us to serve and love those around us. Romans 15 says, “Therefore, welcome one another as you have been welcomed by Christ.” Lent is a season for reflecting on how you have been welcomed by Christ and putting that forward to those around you.
Being a part of a community is a huge part of celebrating Lent. As we remember the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, it is important to keep the focal point in view. Ephesians 5:25 says that Jesus gave himself up for his bride. That is a communal reality not an individual one.
Because of this, as you are fasting and preparing make sure to worship with and engage meaningfully with the worshiping community. Also make a point to do your Bible reading, prayer, and reflection with your children as a way of bringing them up in the Lord and the things of the Lord.
There is a lot of liberty when it comes to how you go about observing and celebrating Lent. But, keeping these three key pieces in mind can help navigate the process.
Note: The following list headings came from David Powlison’s “How Does Sanctification Work” Found at this LINK. I highly recommend this resource.