The season of Lent is an invitation to meet Jesus in our suffering. It drives us toward the love of God and reminds us that Jesus shares in our sufferings and we get to share in His—all for the purpose of becoming more like Him.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
— A Lenten Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer
What is Lent?
Lent is about the gospel. It is a time to narrow the focus of the Church to the work of Christ, in particular His life and death, a season to turn from sin and trust in His atoning work.
It is easy to get lost in the cultural caricature of Easter and miss the meaning. Lent is a reminder that the resurrection only occurred after the crucifixion. Rather than skipping over the ministry and crucifixion of Christ, Lent prepares us for the joy of Resurrection Sunday as we symbolically enter the sorrow and pain that preceded it.
Lent lasts approximately 46 days, including Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The 40 days (excluding Sundays) have obvious biblical parallel in the flood narrative (Gen. 6-8), the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai (Exod. 24:12-18), Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:1-12) and Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:9-12; Luke 4:1-13). The last of these accounts is most relevant to Lent.
Originally a preparation period for those desiring to be baptized, Lent eventually became embedded into Christian tradition as a time for the Church to symbolically follow Christ into the wilderness. It is a time for fasting and self-denial, though not for denial itself. It is a period to empty ourselves of lesser things so that we might be filled with the greater things of the gospel.
We aren’t practicing Lent to gain acceptance from Jesus;
we already have that acceptance and love.
Lent starts with Ash Wednesday, a day to remember our mortality and the idea that we are but dust and to it we shall return. In many churches, individuals celebrate Ash Wednesday by placing ash on their foreheads in the shape of a cross, representing entrance into a time of denial, repentance and humility.
Unlike Advent and the use of candles and wreaths, there is no universal symbol for the season, but many choose to use votives to create a Lenten cross. This cross is typically formed by seven small tea lights. Each evening, all seven candles are lit, and one is extinguished for each week of Lent that passes. During the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday of week seven, no lights are lit as participants reflect upon the darkness of Gethsemane, Golgotha and the grave.
Whereas Advent is a season of ever-increasing light anticipating the incarnation of Christ, Lent is a season of ever-decreasing light approaching His crucifixion. Light is gradually extinguished to symbolize the journey through the wilderness and toward the cross and tomb. Black (death and mourning) and purple (repentance) are the colors most often associated with the tradition.
Since ancient times the church has observed a season of fasting and intentional austerity, consisting of the forty days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter. This season began as a forty-day period of preparation and instruction for baptismal candidates, but eventually came to be observed by baptized Christians as a way of preparing our hearts to celebrate the wonder of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
To be a Christian necessarily involves a heart posture of contrition and repentance toward God. Though Christians are always called to this heart posture, the season of Lent provides us space to practice that repentance with our bodies as well. A sustained consideration of our creaturely mortality and our moral culpability leads us to repentance, to renewed discipline, and to worship of our crucified and risen Lord.
As a church, we will corporately observe Lent together in various ways. During Holy Week (the final week leading up to Easter), we will have a Good Friday service in which we will allow the scriptures take us to the scene of our Lord’s betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion and burial, setting us up for a deep celebration Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.
As individuals and families, I would encourage you to put some thought into how you might practice the observance of Lent through fasting and discipline. The idea behind fasting is to identify something in your life that you tend to use to avoid feeling deeply or facing reality. This might be certain types of food, social media, alcohol, Netflix or anything to which you find yourself turning for distraction or self-medication. Since every Sunday is a resurrection feast for Christians, you might suspend your fast on Sundays. Or, if a 40-day fast is intimidating to you, you might choose only one day each week to abstain. The point is to cultivate a hunger for God by taking away something in our lives that’s not necessarily bad or sinful, but might be satisfying us in a superficial way where God wants to satisfy our souls deeply. For families, this can lead to great conversation as the season progresses about how we are each experiencing the fast and how God is speaking to each of us.
You also might consider engaging in a particular discipline to cultivate affections for and obedience to God. Some decide to engage in some kind of service to others, while others read through all the Psalms, for example, or memorize one of Paul’s shorter epistles. Crossway Publishers has made a 40-day reading guide available on their website, with readings based on The Final Days of Jesus by Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor.
Whatever ways you choose to observe the season of Lent, let’s aim together to cultivate deeper affections for the triune God and to practice our faith in such a way that he gets great glory and our city becomes a better place.