by Marcy Kennedy
I still remember the first time I asked my husband if he’d ever given something up for Lent.
“I don’t even know what Lent is,” he replied. “It’s something Catholics do, isn’t it?”
While Catholics celebrate Lent, they’re not the only ones. Many Protestant churches also regularly observe Lent. Despite this, Lent has gained a bad reputation in recent years as nothing more than an empty ritual with roots in meaningless tradition and superstition.
“The practice of Lent isn’t mentioned in the Bible,” opponents argue. “The term ‘Lent’ is nowhere to be found in Scripture.”
They’re right. It isn’t. But it does have a long history within the Christian faith nonetheless.
The History of Lent
Christians have participated in a time of preparation for Easter since the early church. In a letter to Victor I, Bishop of Rome, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. ad 130—ad 200) wrote about the differences between the celebration of Passover in the East and the West. He told Victor, “For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of 40 hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors.”
It wasn’t until after the legalization of Christianity in ad 313, though, that Lent began to take a unified form throughout the church. At the Council of Nicea in ad 325, the church leaders settled on a 40-day season for Lent, and when Tyrannius Rufinus (ad 340-410) translated the passage by Irenaeus from Greek into Latin, he placed the punctuation so that it described the length of the fast as “40 days, 24 hours a day.” Because the original Greek didn’t have punctuation, Rufinus’s translation may or may not be correct, but it influenced Lent as we know it today.
Michael Horton, author of The Gospel-Driven Life (Baker Book, 2009), argues that even though Lent isn’t laid out in Scripture, we shouldn’t unilaterally toss it out. Lent, like many other special days, is “valuable chiefly as a teaching opportunity . . . . Paul seems to have allowed freedom to celebrate old covenant feasts, but upbraided those who bound Christian consciences on the matter, especially with fasts and abstinence.” (See Colossians 2:16-23.)
As long as we keep in mind the true meaning and purpose of Lent, we can keep it from becoming a meaningless tradition and allow it to reinforce and magnify our understanding of Easter and Christ’s sacrifice.
Two Ways to Fast
As someone who loves to cook and eat, the first thing that often comes to mind when I think about fasting is giving up a food or drink item or choosing a certain length of time to give up all food. And for many of us, fasting in this way constitutes a great sacrifice. For others, though, this wouldn’t be a struggle.
If you can easily give up food, you’ll want to turn to the second way to fast—from something you do rather than from something you eat. You can fast from something that’s not inherently bad (such as TV or a sport), or you can choose Lent as the time to start breaking a bad habit (like swearing or smoking). Fasting isn’t as much about what we give up as is it about how difficult it is to give that thing up. Examine your life. When you come to an item and think “No, I can’t give that up,” you’ve found the item that will be most meaningful to sacrifice for Lent.
Regardless what you fast from, keep your fast between you and the Lord as much as possible (Matthew 6:16-18). Choosing someone you trust to help with accountability can be beneficial, but if we tell too many people, fasting can quickly become a boost to our ego rather than to our spiritual health. In Matthew 6:1 Jesus reminds us, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.”
The fundamental purpose of fasting is always to center our hearts on God. Lenten sacrifice helps us do this through three lessons.
Sorrow and Sacrifice
Twenty-nine-year-old elementary school teacher Meighan Lung began giving up something for Lent during her first year at university as a way to remind herself of the true meaning behind the season. “I gave up chocolate,” she recalls, “because it’s something that’s a sacrifice for me.” She’s continued to give up chocolate every year since as a way to help her remember the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice. According to Meighan, “Something like giving up chocolate is so insignificant in light of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It was eye-opening to struggle with giving up chocolate, and I was reminded—more than once a day—of the extent of God’s love for us.”
The first purpose of Lent is to express sorrow over our sins and identify with what Christ suffered to save us. In our act of giving something up, we’re physically showing our repentance and sorrow for the sins we’ve committed, as a small way to feel the pain Christ must have experienced as he was beaten, ridiculed, and crucified for our sins. Easter takes on deeper significance when we’re able to look at it through eyes and hearts prepared by sacrifice.
For Meighan, the lessons didn’t stop with her newfound understanding of how difficult it is to give up something important. Each year brings a new lesson in self-control, starting with the annual Death by Chocolate event hosted by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Club she participated in during university, to her favorite local coffee shop’s giveaway of free hot chocolates that always falls during Lent.
Fasting brings to light our weaknesses. We can’t hide from them anymore, and we’re forced to exercise self-control.
The apostle Paul gives us a key to self-control in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things . . . So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control.”
No matter how much natural talent an athlete possesses, he won’t excel on the field, court, or rink if he hasn’t practiced. Athletes need to train their bodies so they can respond instinctively to any challenge they face—and win.
We need lessons in self-control for the same reason, and Lent provides a perfect opportunity. If we’ve drilled ourselves ahead of time, practicing self-control, we’re more likely to pass a serious test or temptation when it comes.
What Matters Most
Lent isn’t just about sorrow, sacrifice, and self-control. Lent gives us a chance to focus on what matters most. As we take something out of our lives we shouldn’t leave a vacancy, but rather fill that space with something more significant than what we’ve given up.
If you give up watching TV or movies, why not fill the time you used to give to those pursuits with Bible study, prayer, or volunteer work? If you give up a food item, save the money you would have used to eat out or buy your morning coffee and donate it to an organization that’s working to end hunger around the world.
Lent is just one more opportunity to express our God-given creativity. Find a way to move from mourning to joy the way the disciples did as they first watched Christ suffer and die and then realized he had risen again.
Marcy Kennedy is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.
A Time to Refocus
• Did you participate in Lent this year? If so, what practices did you observe? What did you learn from your sacrifice?
• If you did not participate in Lent this year, would you try it next year? Consider doing your own 40-day fast sometime this year as an act of thankfulness for Jesus’ death and resurrection.
• What can you do every day of the year to refocus on all that Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection?