What are you giving up for Lent? That’s a question I’ve been asked by Roman Catholic friends over the years when they find out that I’m a Christian. You may have been asked the same question or perhaps you have come across the idea in other forms. For example, it’s quite common to see a Facebook post saying “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent” or “I’m giving up Facebook for Lent – see you in 40 days”. What is this all about?
I have to confess that becoming a Christian as an adult meant that I was confused about Lent for many years. Lent was one of those Christian sounding ideas that I couldn’t find in my Bible and I was too proud to ask about lest I seem stupid! It turns out, Lent is unfamiliar for many Protestant Christians.
What is Lent? Whilst there is no biblical mandate for Lent the practice can be traced back as far as the 2nd Century AD. The church father Irenaus wrote about Lent as a two or three day period before Easter for self-reflection and repentance. In 325AD, at the Council of Nicea, a period of 40 days rather than two or three days was proposed for Lent. However it is not clear whether that council considered Lent to be for all Christians or just new Christians preparing for Baptism.
After that time Lent took on various forms in the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Today in Australia Lent is still observed in most Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches but rarely observed in Protestant churches. Because modern Lent is 40 days it has been mistakenly likened by some to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness; Elijah’s 40 day’s walking to the mountain of the Lord and Moses’ 40 years of wandering with Israel. This has made Lent seem, incorrectly, to be something of a personal and sacrificial pilgrimage leading up to Easter.
So what do we do with Lent in the lead up to Easter?
First, we should recognise the inherent dangers of man-made religion – even when it is well intentioned. Lent began as a way to reflect upon Jesus’ death and make humble repentance in light of it in the lead up to Easter. Sadly, what Lent has become, for many, just makes a mockery of the cross. The idea that giving up some sugar or a little social media might be the appropriate way to respond to Jesus’ sacrifice is appalling. Worse still is the idea that doing enough of these so-called ‘sacrifices’ will win over God’s saving favour.
Hebrews 10:5 reminds us that back in the Old Testament times God “did not delight in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings”. Why not? Because it is impossible “for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). If animal sacrifices did not atone for sin then what hope is in a sacrifice of no chocolate?
Secondly, when it comes to Lent, we should not let the failure of the man-made practice distract us from the good original intention. That is: Lent was a way to remind ourselves just how important Easter is. So rather than get caught up in observing Lent, let’s get caught up in remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
At the cross in those final moments of Jesus life he cried out “it is finished!”. He was announcing an incredible truth: that the weight of all our sins, the hostility between mankind and God and the fundamental brokenness of the world since the Fall (Genesis 3) had been dealt with by him. Easter is about Jesus’ sacrifice for us to make us who are unclean, holy (Hebrews 10:10). May we grow in our appreciation of that and Him every day!
The Anglican Prayer Book suggests a prayer for the first week of Lent that you might like to make your own:
Father, help us to understand the meaning of your Son’s death and resurrection and
teach us to reflect it in our lives. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.