“Are you Catholic?”
I remember asking one of my college friends who’d just told me they were fasting for Lent. That’s when I found out that several denominations practice Lent, including Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and growing numbers of Baptists and Mennonites. However, I’ve been asked that question, “Are you Catholic?” So it’s time for a history lesson. You might wonder, Why now? Lent has already started. You’re right, it has. But my philosophy is that some is better than nothing. So if you decide Lent is for you, I don’t think it’s too late to start.
What is “Lent”?
Lent in the Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, repentance, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I found that definition on Wikipedia, so it has to be true (ha!). But honestly, I think it is pretty spot on. But why the word “Lent?” What does that mean?
It actually means “Spring.” It comes from Lenz in German and Lente in Dutch. The German word has the root word for long, because the days begin to lengthen in the spring.
Who started Lent?
Lent’s roots go back to Leviticus. God gave the Israelites holidays to remember their history, not unlike thw way Americans celebrate the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. One of these holidays was a day of repentance from sin known as Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement. In Leviticus 23:27 Moses tells the Israelites to “deny yourselves.” This phrase contains the Hebrew word anah, which means “to afflict one’s throat,” or fasting from food and possibly water. This was a day that the Israelites made themselves miserable as they confessed and repented from their sins, engaging their body with their spirit.
This practice continued in the early church. The converted Jews, released from the Law, no longer had to observe the Jewish Day of Atonement, or any of the other feast or fast days. So the early believers created their own calendar of fasts and feasts, which is still visible in the liturgical calendars used today. Forty days has special significance because Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness. Socrates of Constantinople ( not the Greek philosopher but a Greek Christian Historian) mentioned the practice of Lent in his writings, which cover the years 305-439 A.D.
Why Observe Lent?
1. To repent from sin.
Throughout the Old and New Testament, fasting is associated with grief and repentance. Moses, the Israelite nation, David, the apostles, all fasted. As Scot McKnight says in his book, Fasting: The Ancient Practices,
“If our shame over our sin arises in the heart of our very being or finds itself lodged in the core of our conscience – and most of us know just how penetrating this experience is – and if the body and heart are one, depriving ourselves of food and denying ourselves simple pleasures manifest themselves naturally.”
There is something to be said for repenting with your whole body, not just your words. Fasting makes it real. It’s not about punishing ourselves, because we are forgiven and covered by grace, but it is about truly being sorry, being grieved, for our sins.
2. To realize our depravity and dependence.
Fasting is hard for me. I forget and I fail….often. It’s tempting to just give up on fasting entirely. But I’m realizing that even when I fail, I’m still learning. I’m learning how weak I am, how depraved. How tempted by the world I am. How incapable in my own willpower I am, how much I desperately need God. I’m learning humility when I have to come before God and confess that I forgot… again.
All this is good for me. It is killing the self-righteousness and pride that are some of my biggest struggles. It’s also attacking my notion of control over my life and I-can-do-it-myself attitude.
While I’m sure each of our learning experiences is different, I hope you’re encouraged not to quit when failing. Chalk it up to part of the overall learning experience, thank God for grace, and jump back in.
photo © 2005 Mark Probst | more info (via: Wylio)
3. To remember Christ’s sacrifice.
This has to be intentional. It’s so easy for me to let fasting become about me. I think about how I feel, why I’m doing it, I compare my fast to others, and I forget the real why: the practice of giving up molds us into become more Christlike by reminding us of all that Jesus gave up for us.
Ann Voskamp puts it this way: “[Lent is] like going with Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, that we might come face to face with our enemy. Our sacrificing that we might become more like Christ in His sacrifice.”
4. To prepare to celebrate victory.
Lent prepares us for Easter. The sacrifice prepares us for the celebration. We celebrate the end of our sacrifice at the same time we celebrate the reuniting of Jesus with His heavenly glory, and we celebrate new life.
|Resurrection by Mike_tn|
Ann Voskamp quotes the “The Spirituality of the Cross”:
“Without food, we would starve to death. We have to eat to fuel our physical life; otherwise we grow weak and waste away. The only food that can sustain our bodies comes from the death of other living things… There can be no life, even on the physical level, apart from the sacrifice of other life.
What is true for physical life is true for spiritual life — we can only live if there has been a sacrifice.”
If you’d like to read Ann’s post that I’ve been quoting, it’s called “Why Do Lent? Why A Failing Lent Actually Succeeds.”
Did you learn anything about Lent? Have you ever celebrated it before? What was your experience?