This particular holiday is commonly assumed to be a Catholic one, but it has far older roots in the earliest beginnings of the church and has clear modern day relevance for God’s people.
A group of avowed agnostics decided to observe Lent, “atheist Lent” as they put it.
One lifestyle blogger decided to give up complaining as part of her secular Lent. This season, in her mind, provides a perfect reason to restart failed New Year’s resolutions and continue self-improvement. She concludes, “I’m not perfect, and I’m not trying to be some holier than thou person who’s really annoying. I am trying to become a better version of myself…. By the way, I’m not Catholic. I just love Lent.”
Who knew that Lent was about to become the next fad-diet and self-perfection plan? Unfortunately for its new, agnostic adherents, Lent without the cross is about as hollow as Christmas without a manger.
“Lent is not about having your best life now,” Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said. “Those who observe it believe they are giving up things they want in order to focus on what God wants. There’s little popular appeal in that.”
A writer for Vox insightfully commented, “Lent is fundamentally not about living a better life, but coming to terms with the inevitability of death, and through it a new life in Christ.”
That, in a nutshell, is the heart of this season.
Quick History and Objections Pitstop
The word Lent comes from the ancient Old English term lencten, which simply means “spring.”
Before its English translation, Lent was called tessarakosi in Greek and quadragesima in Latin, essentially meaning “the forty” for the number of days that adherents would spend fasting.
If you comb the dregs of the internet, you’re sure to come across someone railing against Lent as a thin gloss for worship of the Babylonian goddess Tammuz or trying to associate it with pagan festivals in Rome. “Lent is practically Satan-worship,” they wail in some back-alley forum.
More present to many Christians’ minds, though, is the question of whether Lent is an appropriate holiday or observance for those of an evangelical, Pentecostal or non-denominational persuasion. The Lenten season’s associations with Catholicism, monasticism and self-purification is strong but not entirely correct.
While Lent is never specifically mentioned in the Bible or ordained by Jesus, fasting was common practice among the Israelites and later the early church, and the concept of 40 days of fasting is nothing new either.
Moses fasted for 40 days when he communed with the Lord on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:28); Elijah fasted for 40 days on his journey to meet God at Horeb (1 Kings 19:8); and, of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert to prepare for his public ministry (Matt. 4:1–11), just to name a few instances.
Lent was observed informally by the early church until 325 A.D. at the first Council of Nicea when early church fathers decided on an official date for Easter and set the length of 40 days for Lent. To modern day nay-sayers, Christianity Today writer Aaron Damiani points out, “The same council of pastor-theologians who developed the Nicene Creed also formalized the practice of Lent.”
This makes Lent one of the most venerable Christian holidays, older than Christmas, Advent or Thanksgiving by several centuries. Only Easter itself technically came earlier, thanks to its intrinsic ties with the Jewish Passover.
Throughout history, Lent’s great purpose in the hearts of believers has been a purposeful meditation on God’s work in the final march leading up to Easter.
Why Us Here and Now?
Lent may be both a thoroughly Christian holiday and have a long, illustrious history in the church, but why should modern Christians observe it?
A 40-day fast isn’t exactly like getting to open the cute little doors on an Advent calendar or singing fun carols and hanging decorations for a month. This sounds considerably more dour and tight-laced.
Didn’t Jesus and the New Covenant set us free from these kinds of unpleasant purification rituals and whatnot?
In his own musings on this topic, Gary Wilkerson said, “During the season of Lent, Christians have historically taken a step back to examine their lives. By retreating and pursuing space to think, I believe people will begin to see what they truly desire and will have the courage to take the appropriate steps to see change in their lives.
“I have been leading an international charity for more than a decade and pastoring churches for more than 30 years, and through my work I have observed many Christians who truly believe the promises of God. And yet, people rarely create enough space and time to observe their lives closely enough to see those promises realized.”
As we prepare for Easter and focus on the significance of Christ’s sacrifice, we also may find a vital space for contemplating what God has saved us for and what the Holy Spirit may be longing to do inside of us.
Lent is a time of prayer and meditation on scripture, so opening our spirits to God’s voice also means laying our futures and deepest questions before him.
As Sarah Phillips notes in her Crosswalk article on the Lenten season, “Although its format has varied throughout the centuries and throughout different cultures, the basic concept remains the same: to open our hearts to God's refining grace through prayer, confession, fasting, and almsgiving as we anticipate Holy Week.
In an increasingly busy world, Lent offers a fantastic opportunity to pause and reorient ourselves to our Father’s will.
Thoughtfully Preparing for Easter
For those interested in observing your first Lent, you can set aside the entire 40-day period, or you may choose a shorter amount of time right before Easter.
Very early church believers usually observed anywhere between two days up to a week of going without food in preparation for Easter. Many traditional 40-day Lenten fasts involve a vegan diet (no meat or animal products like milk or eggs) during the week punctuated by one meal at the end of the week with fish or meat.
While food has conventionally been the focus of Lent, it does not mean this is the only thing we can fast from in order to train our hearts on the Son of God’s sacrifice. Some may already observe a vegan diet, so Lent would be no change for them. Others have medical restrictions that mean a vegan diet would be unhealthy or even dangerous.
As someone who falls into the latter category, I’ve fasted from social media, any books other than the Bible or anything to drink other than water. One particular Lent, while I was in college, I gave up profanity. Not exactly a moment in my life to be proud of, but I did end up having more conversations about God and the meaning of Easter with classmates and non-Christian friends that Lent than any one before. Regardless of what you give up, it should serve as a regular reminder that you’ve been called to a new and different life and there are sacrifices to be made as a result.
Some might say that a fast without giving up food isn’t fasting, to which I point to the Bible. When Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees about his disciples not following the exact prescriptions of the Sabbath, he stated, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28 ESV).
The same heart might be applied to Lent. Pray about what God may want you to give up. If you can safely take on a vegan diet, you may try that. You may feel convicted about giving up something other than food, though, for this season.
The first day of a 40-day Lent begins February 26th this year, and it is usually considered finished on the Thursday before Good Friday since this is when Jesus sat down for his last supper before going to the cross. Others will observe a seven day long Lent starting Palm Sunday and stretching the length of Holy Week. Still others will fast Good Friday and Saturday and break their fast in celebration on Sunday morning.
Prayerfully consider how your Lent will look and then use each day as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice and the glorious promise of Easter.