Like many who came to faith in a low-church evangelical-fundamentalist setting, I heard very little about Lent, and what I did hear was not good. In our independent Bible and Baptist churches, we were told that Lent was something Roman Catholics and high-church protestants observed in order to earn their way into heaven. Where was Lent in the Bible anyway?
Today I think differently about Lent. So what if it isn’t directly taught in the Bible—neither is using those little all-in-one prefilled communion cups to observe the Lord’s Supper. Peeling off a plastic seal to get a communion wafer and then another one to get a sip of juice is not my idea of how to observe the sacrament, but perhaps it’s wise during the pandemic. So, as I dutifully peeled the plastic last Sunday morning, struggling with the layer encasing the juice, my walk with the Lord was enlivened once again.
Using those little plastic all-in-one communion capsules—one website actually calls them the miracle meal—to celebrate the Lord’s Supper is not that different from observing Lent. Both practices, one ancient and the other quite contemporary, are means toward an end, enabling us to enrich our life in Christ in community with other believers. It’s all a matter of how we participate. Jesus and Paul don’t tell us anything about plastic all-in-one Communion capsules—they tell us to observe the Eucharist to remember the Lord’s death until he comes. And neither do Jesus and Paul tell us to practice a 40-day period of self-denial and reflection before Easter—they tell us about cruciformity, that our lives should be centered on and modeled after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So if we can handle taking communion with little plastic capsules, we should consider observing Lent.
So, where did Lent come from anyway?
The English word “lent” goes back to an Old English word that referred to the spring season. Apparently the observance of Lent arose from the early Christian practice of fasting before Easter, often by those anticipating baptism during the Easter season. This fast came to be associated with Jesus’ 40-days of fasting and testing in the wilderness of Judea, and the observance of the traditional Lenten season from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday gradually spread. The 40 week days before Easter, usually excluding Sundays, were devoted to fasting, prayer, giving, and other forms of self-denial.
In the late 2nd century CE Irenaeus spoke of various ways Christians participated in a pre-Easter fast (Eusebius, Church History, 5.24). The custom became more formalized after the Council of Nicea (325 CE ) as a way of preparing for participation in holy week, anticipating Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The affliction of Lent would lead to the great joy of Easter. Ancient luminaries who spoke of Lent include Athanasius of Alexandria (Festal Letters 1-6, c. 329-34 CE) and Chrysostom (Homilies on Genesis 30.1-3, late 4th century CE). Augustine, citing Galatians 6:14, went so far as to say that Lent epitomized the whole Christian life because it focused Christians on taking up the cross of Christ (Sermon 205, I; c. 420 CE)
The early protestants reformed Lenten observance in various ways. Calvin spoke about Lent in the context of fasting (Institutes 4.14-18), which he viewed as a voluntary act to subdue sinful desires, to prepare oneself for prayer and meditation, and to acknowledge sin. He went on to argue against compulsory enforcement of Lenten rules, and against the superstitious or meritorious observance of Lent, citing Joel 2:13 and Isaiah 58:5-6. Calvin taught that Jesus never commanded his followers to mimic his unique 40-day fast with annual required fasts (Institutes 4.12.20; Commentary on Matt 4:1). Luther similarly protested that Lent had become a mockery because it was undertaken as a work of merit to obtain God’s favor rather than as a voluntary means of bringing one’s flesh under subjection (Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent on Matt 4:1-11). Despite these warnings, Luther retained Lent in the Lutheran church yearly calendar. Reformed denominations today instruct the faithful on proper Lenten observance. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer provides prayers for every Sunday of the Lenten season.
But what does the Bible say about Lent?
You won’t find the word “Lent” in a biblical concordance. The Bible says nothing directly about Lent. But you won’t find the word “trinity” in the Bible either. The question is whether the observance of Lent is consistent with the Bible. The observance of Lent seems to be derived from four strands of biblical teaching.
1. Lent is based on three basic religious practices Jesus taught about in the Sermon on the Mount: giving, praying and fasting (Matt 6:1-18). See our previous post on Matt 6:1-18 for teaching on these practices.
2. In the Bible 40 is a round number often associated with seasons of affliction and/or special revelations of God. Here are several of them:
- The flood in the times of Noah lasted 40 days (Gen 7:4, 14, 17; 8:6).
- Israel ate manna wandering in the wilderness for 40 years (Exod 16:35; Josh 5:6; Neh 9:21; Ps 95:10; Acts 7:36), one year for every day they spied out the land before refusing to enter it (Deut 2:7; 8;2; Num 13:25; 14:33-34; 32:13).
- Moses spent 40 days with God on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:18; 34:28; Deut 9). Later Elijah undertook a 40-day journey to Mount Horeb, likely the same place as Sinai (1 Kings 19:8).
- The book of Judges tells of Israel’s experience of 40-year periods of rest (Jdg 3:11; 5:31; 8:28)—and of bondage when they disobeyed the Lord (Jdg 13:1).
- Jonah prophesied God’s judgment on Nineveh in 40 days (Jon 3:4).
- Jesus‘ fasted 40 days while being tested by the devil in the wilderness of Judea (Matt 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2).
- After the resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples and taught them for 40 days (Acts 1:3).
3. Jesus spoke in various ways about how his disciples would enter into his sufferings. He said that his disciples would suffer because of their allegiance to him (Matt 5:11-12; 10:25; John 15:18-23), and that following him amounted to taking up the cross (Matt 16:24//Mark 8:34//Luke 9:23. Every follower of Jesus needs to ponder what taking up the cross means to them personally.
4. The risen Jesus spoke of Paul’s ministry in terms of “how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:36). Later Paul acknowledged that that his afflictions completed the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:28; cf. Rom 8:17; 2 Cor 1:5-6). Paul also spoke of his desire to know Christ more deeply by participating in his sufferings in anticipation of his resurrection (Phil 3:7-11). This understanding enabled Paul to “endure everything for the sake of the elect” (2 Tim 1:8-13). Paul’s teaching that believers participate in Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and heavenly reign (Rom 6:1-11; Eph 2:1-10; Col 3:1-4) is at the heart of his theology. He urged believers to ponder and practice their new identity in Christ by jettisoning old sinful behaviors and embracing new godly patterns of life (Rom 6:12-14; 8:12-13; Eph 4:17-32; Col 3:5-17).
These biblical precedents and teachings provide direction to those who wish to observe Lent properly, by focusing on Christ-likeness rather than human traditions and effort. When these transforming truths are at its center, Lent can be a special time of devotion to Christ in preparation for renewed experience his passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection ought to be constantly on the heart of every Christian, especially as Easter approaches. The essence of our life in Christ is sharing in the cross and the empty tomb. Reflecting on our sinfulness and on Christ’s sacrifice for our sins is not an option. Many Christians have found that observing Lent enhances their Christian experience and deepens their fellowship with Christ.
I can think of three wrong ways to observe Lent. Lent can become a perfunctory tradition; and some simply “go through the motions” because others expect them to do so. For some observing Lent is a matter of self-aggrandizement; they “show off” to impress other people with their holiness. And some observe Lent because they think it will get God’s attention and earn his favor. But the misuse of Lent does not mean it cannot be observed properly. It’s possible to participate faithfully in the Lenten season as a time of special devotion to Christ, anticipating his passion and pondering his sufferings before exalting in his glory.
The 2022 Lenten season is an opportunity for Christians all over the world to cry out all the more to God to extend mercy to the Ukraine. The immense injustice being perpetrated there is causing untold suffering. May believers in the region be faithful as salt and light. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” [and Cursed are the warmongers.]
This year Lent is from March 2 to April 14 on the western church calendar, March 7- April 15 on the Eastern calendar. May the Lord guide you in choosing whether you observe it, and in how you do so!
• • • • • • •
Turn to me now, while there is time.
Give me your hearts.
Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.
Don’t tear your clothing in your grief,
but tear your hearts instead.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
He is eager to relent and not punish. (Joel 2:12-13 NLT)
• • • • • • •
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help. (Isa 58:4-7 NLT)
• • • • • • •
And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (Matt 6:16-18 NLT)