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What Is Lent?

Ministry Staff Reflections


One way to track themes in the biblical narrative, particularly between the testaments, is with recurring numbers. For example, there were twelve tribes of Israel, and then there were the twelve original disciples of Jesus—who witnessed twelve baskets of leftovers after the feeding of the 5,000. There were seven days of Creation in the Genesis narrative, and there are several sets of sevens in the Revelation of John.

The number 40 recurs throughout the canon of Scripture as well. Following the exodus from Egypt, Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years so that a new generation, distinct from the previous rebellious generation, would grow to maturity before the people entered the Promised Land. Jesus, following his baptism and just before beginning his public ministry, was in the wilderness for 40 days, concluding with his temptation by Satan—Pastor Gerald preached on this encounter, as chronicled in Luke 4, a few weeks ago.

The 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness are the basis for the 40 days of Lent, the period preceding Easter Sunday, the highest day of the Christian year. The season of Lent was established in the fourth century, not long after the Council of Nicaea. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday; in 2016, Ash Wednesday is February 10, 40 days (not including Sundays, because every Sunday, liturgically, is a “mini Easter”) before Easter Sunday on March 27.

So what is Lent? In a non-denominational low church setting like Calvary, it is likely an unknown entity to some. Probably more of us are familiar with Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas Day, due to the overwhelming cultural recognition of the same time period, though under the name “Christmastime” (which, liturgically, actually begins rather than ends on December 25, and extends to January 6, the Epiphany). Lent is to Easter what Advent is to Christmas—a time of preparation.

Of course, the larger Western culture is not completely unaware of Lent. Even people who would not consider themselves religious or practicing religious can be found to “give something up for Lent.” Beer, coffee, Facebook, chocolate (my girlfriend did this one year when we were in college; I kept her supply of chocolate safe in my dorm room and yes, I returned it to her in full on Easter) – see the top 100 choices and other interesting tidbits about how Americans planned to observe this time last year.

All of this is a rather American approach to the idea of sacrificing, or fasting from, something for Lent, just as Jesus fasted those 40 days in the wilderness. But what is the point of this practice of fasting, particularly if we see it more as a spiritual discipline rather than a cultural activity?

The point of fasting as a spiritual discipline is to focus one’s heart and mind on God, by using the hunger pains as a reminder to pray, for example.

My first memorable experience of fasting was about eleven years ago, when I was in high school and part of a team preparing for a short-term summer missions trip to Costa Rica to work with Mark and Karen Edwards, one of Calvary’s missionary couples. Craig Hammond, another of Calvary’s missionaries who was our high school pastor at the time, asked all of us to fast for 24 hours on the weekend before we left, from Saturday late morning until just after church on Sunday when we would have lunch at our last team meeting before our trip.

I felt the hunger pains, no question. I remember sitting on my bed that Saturday afternoon, feeling hungry, and, as Craig had instructed, using the time to pray. I remember writing a couple pages of prayer in anticipation of the trip.

But what of fasting—whether from food or something else—for all of the 40-day (46 days if you include the Sundays) Lenten season? The point can be the same: use the hunger pains (whether literal or metaphorical) as a reminder to turn your thoughts heavenward.

Last year for Lent I sacrificed listening to the radio or music in my car. I used that time (about five hours in total each week) instead to pray. On my way to work (or to anywhere), I would pray for what I had to do that day, for my colleagues, and as well for family members and friends in their work that day. On the way home, my thoughts would be a bit more retrospective, a time of thanksgiving and confession for the day’s blessings (from God) and missteps (from me). Even listening to sacred music or sermon podcasts would have been no substitute for that time of silence and communion with God.

I intend to drive without the radio or music this Lent as well, and if you are looking for a suggestion for something sacrifice this Lent and you spent a lot of time driving alone, I would recommend that as well.

But let me clarify that it is not enough to use Lent as a time to refocus on God. It is not less than that, but it is more than that. Lent precedes Eastertide, but before the greatest day of the Christian year, Easter Sunday, comes the darkest day of the Christian year, Good Friday. The day the sinless Son of God bore the wrath of God in our place.

Lent is a time to consider the overwhelming magnitude of our sins and our rebellion against and separation from a holy God. It is a time to remember not just our broken world, but our broken selves. Culminating in the darkness and silence at the conclusion of our Good Friday service, it is a time to feel the crushing weight of sin and our desperate need for Jesus. It is not a happy season. But as we work out our salvation and grow into the likeness of Christ, it is imperative we take time to recognize that we, corporately and individually, are sinners, and that we continually repent.

And so, let me encourage you, whether by yourself or with your spouse, family, or small group, find something to sacrifice for Lent and when you feel the hunger pains, turn your thoughts to Jesus, to him who suffered not just hunger pains but suffered crucifixion that our hunger pains and all our suffering might one day be forgotten and that our death would lead not to separation from God but rather to eternal life.

“The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.” A. Schmemann

Eric Rubio is the Director of Administration. He writes at the Rubio Room. Follow @therubioroom on Twitter.