Growing up as I did in the Lutheran Church, Lent was part of my yearly experience. We started the season with a service on Ash Wednesday and proceeded to attend church on Wednesday evenings until Holy Week. Our practice of Lent did not include ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday, neither did we focus on the practice of fasting. (However, since Wednesday evenings was the only time Batman was on TV, and back then you didn’t have anything like a DVR, I unwillingly participated in a type of fasting!) My mother was not one to promote spiritual practices, and often quoted the verses from Ephesians 2:8-9:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (NIV)
Fasting was too close to ‘works’ and she would have none of that. So Lent was more of a recognition of the time before Easter with an additional church service thrown in.
When I began to attend churches with a more evangelical bent, Lent was hardly mentioned. The focus was entirely on Easter. While some of the churches may have celebrated Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, the season of Lent came and went without too much notice. Over time, I found I missed Lent.
As I became more involved with Spiritual Formation/Direction, the idea of taking notice of the Liturgical Calendar became more intriguing to me. I wanted to mark the traditional observances with some relevance to my spiritual journey. How could I make the Lenten season significant?
I thought the first thing I needed was to understand Lent, it’s history and purpose, and subsequently, began a little research. I found the practices of Lent have evolved since the first century. It appears that early Christians celebrated Easter with some sort of fasting beforehand, but not the 40 days we attribute to the season of Lent. The canons of Nicaea in 325 A.D. make mention of the practice of fasting for 40 days before Easter in preparation of one being baptized on Easter. Over the centuries it developed into what is now called Lent (Old English word for “spring”) which incorporated a time of fasting and confession. During the Reformation period, the rules became relaxed, but the 20th century saw an increase in participation.[i] The choice of 40 days reflects the use of the number 40 in the Bible – the rain came down for 40 days and 40 nights to cause the Flood in Genesis; the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt; and the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry.[ii]
Lent and Advent have a similar emphasis. Each sees preparation as the focus. Advent is a time to prepare for the coming Christ; Lent a time of personal preparation for Easter. Again, in the Bible the 40 days is a time of preparation, the Israelites were being cleansed and prepared for the entrance into the Promised Land. Jesus was being prepared in the wilderness for the work he would do in his final three years of life on this earth. Each of these circumstances pointed to something in the future which would lead to something good.
The good for us is resurrection. Not only the resurrection of Jesus, but our future resurrection. By Jesus suffering, death, and resurrection, Easter becomes a celebration of Jesus defeating death and releasing the power it had over us, which makes it possible for our own resurrection, and the future of everlasting life. Therefore, Lent gives us an opportunity to pause. To think about this gift of the Kingdom of God throughout eternity, and the cost of this gift, i.e. Jesus’ suffering and death. As a result, we are naturally led towards reflection and self-examination.
The next step in answering the question “How can I make Lent significant in my spiritual journey?” becomes “What can I incorporate in my life as I prepare for Easter that uses reflection and self-examination?”
For example, to practice reflection, we can integrate a daily routine of looking at the Old and New Testaments for those things related to Jesus life, including his death and resurrection. There are many devotionals out there which can help with this. Or simply research online for scriptures that are related to the Holy Week, especially the ones which show the prophecy in the Old Testament and the fulfillment of them in the New Testament. (i.e. Isaiah 53 and corresponding New Testament scriptures[iii])
Another way for reflection might be looking at the things Jesus told us about death in the New Testament and meditating on them, such as:
- Seeds dying before they can create life (John 12:24)
- The willingness to die so that we can find life (Matt 16:25)
- The idea that he died, so we could live (John 10:10 and look at 2 Corinthians 5:15)
As to self-examination, when you are meditating in the above scriptures you can ask yourself: What might God want me to learn through what Jesus said? How am I practicing Jesus’ desires for me? How am I not? Certainly, this kind of questioning can lead to confession and forgiveness.
There is also room for the practice called The Examen. Each evening looking back on our day and asking ourselves two specific questions relating to Lent: What about my day helped me to realize what Jesus did for me? What from my day took away from me any thought of Jesus work? We can then journal our responses, and eventually things about ourselves will become apparent. Our strengths and weaknesses can be exposed, places we need to work on through prayer and other practices.
Other practices which may be helpful:
Fasting is the historical standard for Lent. The are many creative ways to use fasting. I know people who give up chocolate every year, but for someone like me, who doesn’t eat a lot of chocolate, there might not be a great deal to learn. Fasting is a personal challenge – find something that will be meaningful for you, from certain foods to social media. It isn’t so much what you give up than about what is happening to you as you practice fasting. For example, you can experience grace if you fail a day. If it is especially difficult, you will see how the thing you are fasting from has domination on your life. Perhaps in the giving up you will realize how much you need to depend on God’s strength rather than on your own.
Purple is the color of Lent. Purple is the color of royalty and can be used as a reminder of who Jesus is: King of this Universe and the Son of God. Purple can also be a color of repentance, again a reminder of self-examination leading us to confession, and ultimately – forgiveness. Perhaps the color can be used in creative ways to keep our mind focused on the decision to participate in Lent.
Lent is not a mandate from the Bible, you do not have to recognize the season. But it can be another opportunity to experience the spiritual life in a deeper sense. We can do Lenten practices at any time during the year, but by practicing during the time before Easter, not only does it carry a greater meaning for us as we look towards Easter, but we are able to practice it at the same time with the community of believers throughout the world.
I liked this quote by Sarah Phillips from Crosswalk.com:
“Those who journey through the Lenten season will enter the Easter season with an increased appreciation for who God is and what He has done for us. And the joy of Resurrection, as well as the promises of eternity, will not be soon forgotten.”[iv]
I pray for blessings on your chosen practice for Lent. May you find in this season a new joy in your life with Christ.
(For more references on the meaning of Lent please refer to these articles in the footnotes.[v])