Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season. Here in Auburn, we have an ecumenical Lenten breakfast each Friday of Lent with one of the area pastors giving a brief devotion generally on the Passion of Christ. What fascinates me though is the struggle many evangelicals have with the idea of Lent. In this article I would like to look at the following questions: What is Lent; Should Evangelicals commit to such a practice; What does this look like?
What is Lent? Historically, the idea behind Lent goes as far back as Irenaus of Lyons. He wrote of such a season in the earliest days of the church, but it lasted only two or three days. If one was to investigate Polycarp and the Quartodeciman Controversy, there seems to be a hint of evidence that fasting was common the day before celebrating Easter. Behind Lent, was the idea of self-sacrifice (i.e. fasting), to bring about self-examination to prepare one's heart for the great celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord. The 40-day Lenten season of fasting does not seem to show up until the Council of Nicea in 325AD, which seemed to be primarily for new believers to be ready for baptism.
Why the 40 days? One does not have to search to far to see the importance of this number in the Bible. Moses was on the mountain fasting for forty days. Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days as he fasted. Jesus after his resurrection was with his disciples for forty days. It would seem to be a good number to prepare oneself for the celebration of Easter. In conclusion, Lent is a forty day period of preparation for one to examine oneself prior to the wonderful celebration of Easter.
Should Evangelicals practice Lent? One could write a whole article on just this question. However, there needs to be two points of address. 1) History proves that Christians have practice some sort of preparation for Easter as early as Polycarp, prior to the formalization of the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation. 2) John Calvin and the major reformers all practice Lent, divorcing the Catholic connection between fasting and penance.
Due to great fear of easily making Lent full of superstitions, the Puritans refrain1 from practicing Lent. However, this should not deter an Evangelicals from observing Lent. One's salvation and relationship is not based on any observation of special holidays, but by faith alone. As long as one is aware of the pitfalls as can be found in any observation, practicing Lent can be very rewarding in focusing our attention to Christ's passion and resurrection.
What does practicing Lent look like? It is one thing to see the importance. It is another to understand how this works out in life. For Evangelicals, there is uncertainty due to a lack of participation for years. Some remember seeing people eat fish on Fridays presuming that this is what needs to be done. Others give something up (fast from) for the forty days thinking that they accomplish the task. Yet, they tend to forget that Lent is not simply fasting from something, but giving something up in order to draw closer in their walk with the Lord.
One person I knew gave up purchasing a favorite desert for Lent one year. However, their observation of Lent stopped there. A better practice may have been seeking out what they may do with the funds saved for the glory of God's kingdom. Remember, Lent is not just giving something up, but it is to refocus ourselves, re-examining, preparing ourselves for the passion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.
1 "Lent—Why Bother? To Lead Us to Christ" by Michael Horton; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/february/15.55.html
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