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Learning About Lent

Learning About Lent

Graham Gladstone

I’ve never really known what to do with Lent.  I have memories of ‘giving something up for Lent’ stretching from childhood to university but they all have a common subconscious thread: ‘give something up for Lent, and don’t stumble… OR ELSE!’  If I’m honest with myself, I suspect that that comes from my old nature – the one that wants to ‘be good enough’ and ‘make myself worthy of God.’

What’s more, ‘Lent’ doesn’t appear in the God’s authoritative Word to us, the Bible, so there’s no reason that we should feel compelled to have to ‘do Lent.’ 

For me, this begs the question: “Is Lent a helpful pastoral tradition that we can inherit from history, or is it an impediment to the proclamation and living out of the Gospel of grace?”  To help you to answer that question in your own context, let me explore some of the history behind the practice of Lent.

The Lord’s Supper

At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted THE authoritative memorial of His death and resurrection: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1Co 11:26 NIV).  Jesus commanded it, so we are compelled to do it.  As Bobby Gilles’ Every Sunday is a little Easter pointed out, this is why Sundays were exempt from fasting in the early Church – when you celebrate the death and resurrection, you do it with a backward-forward feast (recalling the Last Supper, anticipating the Lamb’s Supper (Rev 19).

A Pre-Easter Fast

While Sunday and the Lord’s Supper provided a weekly celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there arose a desire to mark that great event on a yearly basis.  Early believers borrowed the fast period connected to the Jewish Passover (after all, Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb – 1 Cor. 5:7, Heb. 9:24-26) and over time it evolved into a week-long, pre-Easter fast (Bradshaw, 85-86).

A Pre-Baptismal Fast

Given the death and resurrection imagery inherent in baptism (“…having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him … who raised [Jesus] from the dead…” Col 2:12 NIV), Easter became a preferred time for the baptism of new believers (Talley, 167, 195).  A period of fasting and teaching was established as people prepared for their pre-Easter baptism.  As Christianity became legal and widespread, fewer adults were baptized and by the fourth or fifth century, the pre-Easter season was linked to the rite of penance and reconciliation, which included a forty day fast (Talley, 190 & 223).

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Forty Days in the Desert

Some parts of the early church recalled Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness by participating in a forty day fast, but this was not connected to Easter.  Believers would celebrate Jesus’ appearance and baptism together at Epiphany (January 6) and then following Mark’s Gospel chronology, begin a forty day fast in imitation of Jesus on the following day (January 7) (Talley, 193).

The Fusing of Traditions

After the Council of Nicaea, these three fast periods slowly began to merge into one practice of Lent, with a great deal of local variation spread across the centuries-long process of evolution (Talley, 216).

Some observations:

  1. We have one authoritative action for celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection – the Lord’s Supper.  We need to give it the forefront because it reminds us that this life of faith is not about what we do, but about what Jesus did for us.  He died as our Passover Lamb, to deliver us from bondage to sin so our life now and in eternity is fueled only and entirely by His grace – the Lord’s Supper is our God-given way of recognizing that.
  2. Our hope for salvation is Christ alone.  The history of Lent shows pastors just trying to help their congregations to better appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice, but the Pharisees in each of us are tempted to turn ‘giving something up’ into something that saves us.  If your church participates in Lent, it might be helpful to remind your people that ‘giving something up’ doesn’t make God love you more, but it is intended to help you love Him more. 
  3. Notice the evolution from ‘fasting’ to ‘giving something up.’  Maybe I’m splitting hairs but there seems to a subtle difference – fasting is a practice undertaken in community to learn that [we] do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deu 8:3 NIV); ‘giving something up’ is a solitary activity that skews towards self-denial.  To put it another way, ‘fasting’ is getting more of God, ‘giving something up’ is having less of whatever you give up.  Perhaps this is too simplistic, but I think that the point remains, if we encourage our people to ‘give something up,’ encourage them not just to subtract something from their lives; add to their appreciation for God. 
  4. On that front, I’m especially intrigued by the pre-baptismal fast periods because they combined fasting and teaching – giving up food, yes, but also savoring God’s Word and presence.  I wonder if it would be helpful to celebrate Lent this way: don’t give up anything but commit yourself to reading the Bible every day.  This may still mean you give up something – twenty minutes less sleep here, fifteen minutes less social media there – but you’d be gaining something life-giving as that time would be spent getting to know the God who loves you more.

Given that there is no authoritative biblical call to practice Lent, we have freedom to choose how (and if) we do Lent in our churches and homes.  That’s why I prefaced this discussion with the question: “Is Lent a helpful pastoral tradition, or is it an impediment to grace?”  My feeling is this: if we help our people to practice Lent in a way that gives God all the credit and helps us to better love Him and appreciate Easter, we will have accomplished all that the ancient Church sought to do through Lent. 

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