What is Lent?
[I originally wrote this article in February 2007. I have now moved it into the holiday series so that it will be linked to all the other holiday articles.]
Lent is a time of soul-searching and repentance in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection on Good Friday and Easter. In the Western Church, Lent consists of the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday. The day before Lent begins has become a day of feasting and revelry before the solemn fasting of Lent. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, because it was the last day for feasting before the Lenten fast. Some people call the festival Carnival, which is Latin for farewell to meat. [Update: Another theory of the origin of Carnival is given by the Oxford English Dictionary, where the word is derived from Latin carnem levare (removal of the meat) or carnem laxare (leaving the meat) (cited in the Wikipedia article on Ash Wednesday).] Obviously the sensuality and excess of Mardi Gras has no place in the life of a Christian, and Mardi Gras is in no sense a Christian holiday.
The English word lent derives from the Germanic root for Spring (specifically Old English lencten; also the Anglo-Saxon name for March – lenct – as the main part of Lent, before Easter, usually occurred in March). Formerly Lent was referred to by the term quadragesima (or the “fortieth day” before Easter). This nomenclature is preserved in Romance, Slavic and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima) (from Wikipedia)
The history of Lent
The earliest reference to a period of fasting and prayer before Easter is in the writings of the 2nd c. church father Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200), who wrote of a period lasting only two or three days. Apparently at that time there was a variety of practices, with some fasting for one day while others fasted for two. But the interesting thing is that it seems that there was a widespread practice of fasting before Easter. He also argues that the practice already has a long history, so it is possible that it goes back to the 1st century.
A few years later, Tertullian also makes reference to a period of fasting before Easter.
The first mention of the ancient term for Lent, tessarakoste, occurs in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (325 AD). A few years earlier in 311, Athanasius wrote to his flock that they should practice a period of 40 days of fasting prior to the stricter fast of the Holy Week (the week before Easter). In 339 he wrote another letter urging the people of Alexandria to observe 40 days of fasting as a custom that was universally practiced “to the end that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock as the only people who do not fast but take our pleasure in those days.”
Thus there is clear evidence that a period of fasting before Easter was practiced at least during the 2nd century, and that by the 4th century there was a wide-spread practice of a 40 day fast. The reason for 40 days is probably to be found in the biblical significance of that number in the lives of Noah, Moses, Jonah, and Christ.
Is Lent Biblical?
When someone asks “Is Lent biblical?,” the answer depends on what you mean by “biblical.” If you mean “Does the Bible specifically require Christians to practice Lent?,” then the answer is “no.” Of course in that sense of the term, customs such as church choirs or Sunday school would also be “not biblical.” But if you mean “Is the practice of Lent founded on biblical principles,” then the answer is certainly “yes.” The three main practices of Lent from ancient times have been (1) reflection on the significance of Christ’s death along with prayers of repentance and confession, (2) fasting as a means to focus more wholly on God, and (3) giving to assist the poor. All of these are very biblical practices. We are not required to do them specifically during the 40 days prior to Easter, but we can benefit adopting some of the customs of earlier generations of Christians all the way back to the 2nd century.
At this point I should also make it clear that Lenten practices, like any spiritual disciplines, do not make us acceptable to God. We are acceptable to God only through coming to Him by faith on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross for our sins (Eph. 2:8-9). Spiritual disciplines are means through which God works in our lives helping us to grow to spiritual maturity, which is being conformed to the character of Christ (Eph. 4:13; Rom. 8:29). Thus, these practices are for our benefit, and not a way to “earn” anything from God. Sometimes Christians in earlier generations lost sight of this fact.
How to practice Lent
We should view the season of Lent as an opportunity to reflect on the significance of Christ’s death, examine our hearts, and confess our sins. It can be a time of spiritual cleansing and renewal. It is not a “law” that we must follow, and there is a great variety of practices that we can try out. Based on the historic practice of Lent, try doing something in each of these three categories:
- Prayer and Meditation
- Giving to the poor
Give up something for God. Fasting is not a means to “earn” something from God, but rather a way to learn to curb your appetites and focus more completely on God. There are many varieties of fasting, and I do not have the space to discuss this important topic here. For further information see my FAQ on Christian Fasting.
Read over the Gospel accounts of Christ’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Reflect on His suffering, and the tremendous love that it represents. Reflect on your own sin and what it cost Him. Take out some time for prayers of confession and repentance. Do some spiritual “house cleaning.”
Use the money that you save by not eating to help the poor. Consider doing some volunteer work. How can you show the love of Christ to others?
For further reading (most of the information in this article is taken from these sources):
- A summary of Lenten practices
- Why many churches don’t observe Lent
- Christian History newsletter on The Beginning of Lent
- The Catholic Encyclopedia gives a thorough overview of the history of Lent
- A brief introduction to Lent from a Reformed perspective
- The Season of Lent by Dennis Bratcher
- Devotions for Lent