Lent-What it is, History, Why & How to Observe

March 9, 2011 by jpark

What is it?

Lent is the six weeks before Easter (Resurrection Sunday).  This six-week period is called the “Lenten Season.”  Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, which is 40 days before Easter (Sundays are not included in those 40 days).  But it is worthwhile to include the Sundays as well and make it a full 46 days.  There are four things that should occur during this time period.  They are the 5 R’s:

  1. It is a time of REFLECTION

    • Lent is a time to refocus and reflect on the suffering, death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ
  2. It is a time of REPENTANCE

    • In the Lenten season, self-examination is crucial.  As we reflect on the cross, it should expose our pride, our self-sufficiency and our disobedience.
  3. It is a time of READINESS

    • Lent is a time to prepare candidates for baptism and confirmation.  This season is intentionally set aside for examination, instruction, repentance and prayer for these candidates.  Also it is a time of readiness for all members as we prepare to observe and celebrate the Passion Week.
  4. It is a time of RESOLUTION

    • One key component of Lent is to practice the spiritual discipline of fasting.  It does not necessary have to be food, but anything which clutter our lives or impede us from being in relationship with God… that is why it is different for different people.  For some it might be TV, for others it might be shopping.
  5. It is a time of RENEWAL

    • Lent is known as a time of spiritual renewal and growth.  It is a time for people to experience and reflect on the sufferings of Jesus, in light of personal sin and unrighteousness.  As we focus on Jesus, who died so that we may live, it will renew our passion and our first love.

What is the history of it?

The word Lent comes from a variety of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words meaning “spring, a time budding with new life and hope.”  But for Christians, Lent is not a celebration of nature.  Rather, it is a process of prayer and spiritual renewal.  The Lenten season emphasizes one’s need to cultivate a deeper walk with Christ through spiritual exercises and disciplines.

Originally, in the first century, Lent was observed as a 40-hour period, in keeping with the forty hours Jesus’ body was in the tomb.  In the third century, the 40 hours evolved into a 6 day extension.  These 6 days were known as the Holy Week (also known as Passion Week, the last week of Jesus life here on earth).  Then, the 6 days grew into 36 days (36 being the tithe or a tenth of the 365 days of the year).  Finally, during the reign of Charlemagne in the 8th century, 4 days were added to the 36, to create our current celebration of Lent. The added days were Ash Wednesday, which begins the Lenten season, and the three following days, running up to the First Sunday in Lent. The forty days of Lent (Sundays are not included, for they are the Lord’s Day, which includes a celebration of the resurrection) is a time which calls all of us to be dedicated to discipline and personal examination.

Why should we observe it?

There are many evangelical Christians who response to the observance of Lent by saying the following things:

  • “Why should we observe lent?  Shouldn’t we have the death and resurrection of Christ always in our hearts?”
  • “Why be so legalistic?  We are now free in Christ, we don’t need to try to live a life of self-denial.”
  • “Isn’t Lent more of a tradition?  Shouldn’t we do things more out of conviction.”

In response to those questions:

  • Setting aside some special time to remember something or even to experience something is a good thing to do.  We are forgetful people.  Even though the death and resurrection of Christ should always be in our hearts, we forget as we live try to live this life.  If we use this argument, then we should not have retreats, revival meetings or special church events.  But this would be unreasonable because we need retreats.  A retreat is an opportunity to set aside some special time to get away and renew our hearts with God.
  • Legalism is taking something that is “God-centered” and then making it “man-centered.”  Legalism is binding and it puts us in bondage, while doing things (i.e. spiritual disciplines) that are God-centered is liberating and releases us to love God more.  Living a life of self-denial is not only a command of Jesus (Mk 8:34-35, Lk 14:25ff), but those who practice it are truly “free in Christ.”  Free to say, “Yes” to God and “No” to the flesh and the things of this world.
  • Sometimes tradition is good.  For example, some of us might come from backgrounds where it a tradition to go on a family vacation once a year.  This is a good thing because it re-emphasizes the value of the family, of one another and etc.  Tradition gets to be a burden or a strain when we lose the purpose of it.  Once we lose the purpose behind things, we just go through the motions, which always lead to half-heartedness.  Conviction grows as we begin to pray and understand the purpose of why we do things.

In general, observing Lent will really benefit your spiritual life.  It will increase your passion for God and it will bring a greater heart of thankfulness for the cross.  It is especially helpful when everything culminates to the Passion Week and we have Good Friday service and Resurrection Sunday services.  You will not regret it!

How should we observe it?

Once again, this is where our freedom in Christ comes in.  Everyone is different; therefore we will observe Lent in various ways.  There is no one way to do things.  But there are some basic principles to remember:

  1. Try to intensify your commitment to God within this time period
  2. Try to “fast” from something.  Keep in mind that it should cost us something.  What I mean by “cost” is this:  If you are not a breakfast eater and then you decide to give up breakfast for Lent, then it is not costing you anything.  Try to fast from something you know that at times it will be difficult.  Here are some examples:
    • Fast from TV or video games
    • Fast from naps or surfing the web
    • Fast from going out to restaurants
    • Fast from studying on Sundays (b/c you are diligent in getting everything done from M-Sat)
  3. Try to spend time deepening your walk and intimacy with God.  Make a vicious commitment to read the Word and spend time in prayer.
  4. Try to prepare for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday

Also there are some things to remember in the midst of observing Lent.

  1. Remember not to judge.  Don’t look down on people who are not actively observing Lent.  Remember it does not make you more spiritual.  If we are not careful it can definitely lead to spiritual pride.
  2. Remember to give grace.  There are times when someone you know who is fasting from something forgets and starts indulging themselves (I have my fair share of stories).  Some things are so much of a habit that we forget.  This is when we should just encourage them to move on and keep going forward.  Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pe 4:8).
  3. Remember not to get discouraged.  If you fail, pick yourself up and try again.  Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again (Pr 24:16)
  4. Remember to focus on Jesus.  It is all about what Christ did for us on the cross.  May we never forget!

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