What’ s the Deal with Lent?
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt. 11:28, Message)
Rhythms anchor us and center us. A rhythm may move slowly at points, and more frenetically at others, but the cadence gives order to it. Breathing is a rhythm. Life happens in rhythm.
But whose rhythms are we living in step with?
Sacred rhythms keep us in line with the Spirit’s work. They provide us with the space to listen, to look, to learn. The Church Calendar is a rhythm shaped by Christ’s birth, His revealing, His suffering, His death, His resurrection, and His gift of the Spirit.
The Church, of course, is not the first to recognize the value of sacred rhythms. They were following in the footsteps (rhythms!) of their Jewish forefathers, who had feast days and festivals and fasts that were given to them by God while they were still in the wilderness. Think of it: a wandering people with no home yet, no real routines or sense of place…and God gave them a rhythm to live in, a rhythm that would help them worship, and repent, and remember. The early Christians understood how these Jewish feasts were fulfilled in Jesus and so they re-shaped them to mark time around the life of Christ.
But a rhythm doesn’t just help us pay attention to God, it also reminds us that we are not alone. When we participate in a celebration of Christmas or Easter or in the humbling repentance of Lent, we are joining with all who have gone before us. We are walking a well-worn path. We are discarding the arrogance of independence, the pride of “doing it my way”, and humbly joining a chorus of saints.
HOW DID LENT BEGIN? In the Old Testament both Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:7) seem to have had 40-day periods of fasting for the purpose of devoting undivided attention to God, preparing them for a special work. Jesus, on the precipice of beginning His ministry, fasted for 40 days in the wildernesswhere He was tested and proved ready to begin.
As a result, when the church leaders in the mid-2nd century were preparing candidates for baptism, they required the candidates to undergo a 40-day period of reflection, examination, and preparation before they were baptized on Easter morning. As early as the turn of the 3rd century there began to be a more formalized period of repentance and reflection before Easter as evidenced by one of St. Iraneus’s letters to the pope, though it seemed to last 40 hours rather than 40 days.
The various ways of observing Lent became more homogenous after Christianity became legalized in the early 4th century, and even more so after the Council of Nicea in 325AD, making it the 40-day period we are now familiar with. It was Pope Gregory the Great in the early 7th century who moved Lent from beginning on a Sunday to begin on a Wednesday (called Ash Wednesday) so that the Sundays during the Lenten season could be mini-Easters, or mini-feast days.
WHAT’S THE PURPOSE FOR LENT? The purpose of Lent is prayer, self-examination and repentance, sacrifices and acts of service in preparation for Easter. It’s main components, historically, have been fasting and prayer.
Like any other occasion of fasting, the goal is to let go of things in our lives that are not inherently harmful or destructive in order to give our attention to Christ in a special way. It is a letting go of the good for the sake of the laying hold of the best that Christ has offered. For the great part of church history, Lent has been about dietary restrictions, with Sundays being the “feast days” where you get a brief reprieve.
Fasting is not about ‘getting’ God to do anything, nor is about impressing God with our piety. It is about lowering ourselves, humbling our hearts, confessing our sins, and trusting in Christ. It is a way to “know Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings”(Phil. 3:10-11), to share in it with Him, so that we might experience the life, the resurrection, of Easter in a fresh way. It is a way of preparing us to live in perpetual Easter– the life of Christ springing up anew in us as we lay down and let go of control and selfishness. Fasting is also about caring for the poor and the helpless (See: Isaiah 58). Often, a Lenten offering is taking each week for the poor.
The focus at our church this year is not as much on what we’re fasting from but what we’re feeding on. Our whole congregation is engaging in a 40-day New Testament reading plan facilitated by Biblica’s Community Bible Experience.
ABOUT OUR ASH WEDNESDAY SERVICE AT NEW LIFE DOWNTOWN: Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent.
At our Ash Wednesday service, after a time of worship in song, Scripture readings, and a short sermon, we’ll pray through the “Litany of Pentitance”, found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It’s a beautiful and quite thorough guide to allowing the Holy Spirit to work His conviction in us.
Then comes the “imposition of the ashes” on our foreheads, which is an echo of the Scripture’s injunction: “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” It’s a way of confessing our finiteness, admitting our limitations, and trusting Christ to break through our own “dead ends.” We will finish with communion and more worship in song.
Our Ash Wednesday service will be on Wednesday, February 18th, at 7pm at Palmer High School.