What is Lent Anyway?
This week marks the beginning of a major religious celebration around the world called Lent. In our area it means FRIDAY’S ARE FOR SEAFOOD! What is Lent exactly? In Brief:
For Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and other liturgical protestant denominations (those with a continuous history before AD 1500) Lent is the forty day period from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. It is to be a season of soul-searching and repentance. It can be loosely traced to the early days of the church, but was certainly less formal (most scholars believe the time of fasting was two to three days and not forty) and of course much more spiritual. Lent, as we know it today, originated in the fourth century and has changed in practice throughout the years. In AD 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a forty day season of fasting and preparation for new converts to be baptized. In the seventh century, Gregory the Great moved the beginning of Lent from Sunday to Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday. He is also credited with beginning the ceremony of marking foreheads with ashes, as a symbol of repentance taken from the Old Testament. The practice of fasting during Lent has become more relaxed over the centuries and in 1966, the Roman Catholic Church restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Having moved to South Louisiana just 10 years ago, I have observed that Lent is practiced but not understood by many. Even many irreligious people will give up something of value (if you count chocolate, certain adult drinks, coffee, or some other modern convenience that doesn’t really affect a person’s way of life as valuable) and will abstain from meat on Friday. When asked the purpose behind this, the person will say, “I’m not sure,” or take a great guess that would fool everyone if they were playing the board game Balderdash. Herein lies the problem with modern spirituality – it’s long on activity and short on meaning and understanding.
Too often we use religious expression, such as Lent, as a means to fit in, to feel better about ourselves, but not to understand and conform to God’s desire for our lives. In many ways Lent illustrates our lack of understanding about God and His will for humanity. Many people give up for forty days what they know they shouldn’t be doing anyway. In the 2002, movie 40 Days and 40 Nights, a single man vows to stay celibate during Lent, but meets the girl of his dreams and regrets being unable to rebel against God’s commands concerning sexual purity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8) and to “let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4) until Lent is over. As this movie illustrates, some people may see Lent as a window of time to be serious about their faith. I tend to believe God deserves and expects 365 days of devotion and obedience, not just forty.
A somber season of soul-searching and repentance, which includes fasting, is necessary for our generation. I don’t search my soul when I give up my favorite commodity but when I understand and get a glimpse of what God has done for me through Jesus Christ. His suffering, His sacrifice, and His love should make us forget modernity for awhile and focus ourselves on repentance and new life that Christ’s death and resurrection make possible.
So how should we view Lent? One 19th Century preacher called it “The Season of the Cross.” I like that. It’s the cross that is the centerpiece of our faith (1 Corinthians 15:3) and it’s the cross that we are called to carry (Luke 9:23). So, join me during the season of the cross and do more than just mark your calendar and do without some material luxury. Let’s increase our awareness of Christ’s love and His desire for our lives. We may find ourselves gaining more, spiritually, than we could ever give up in 40 days.