Do you see king cakes and moon pies in the grocery store now? Parade floats line the streets and beads hang detangled, ready for tossing. We may or may not get into Mardi Gras, but it heralds Lent. Next week is Ash Wednesday and the official beginning of Lent.
Many of us practice Advent, and why not? Advent heralds God coming to earth, focuses around a precious baby, and comes with lights, yummy foods, and carols. In contrast, Lent seems dark and painful, focusing on sacrifice and death.
What do you think about Lent? Have you ever considered engaging in Lent as part of your spiritual walk? Is it a Biblical practice?
Many scholars believe the apostles started the practice of Lent by preparing for Easter through fasting, self-examination, and repentance. In the early church, converts were baptized on Easter. They prepared through fasting and self-examination for baptism, so whether the fasts were tied more to Easter or to baptisms is not clear.
The length of fasts ranged from 40 hours to 40 days. The nature of the fasts varied too, from an extreme of fasting of all food and drink to the opposite extreme of only excluding meat on certain days.
Church leaders met at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and discussed setting on a unified fasting period for Easter. A church-wide, 40 day preparation period for Easter resulted, a period called Lent. Still, how Christians fasted was not consistent throughout the church.
In Acts, the church set aside Sundays to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, so Gregory the Great changed Lent to exempt Sundays from the fast. He added six days to Lent to maintain a 40 day fast and to continue Sunday celebrations.
Beginning Lent earlier shifted Lent to begin on Wednesday. Gregory the Great named the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, because he marked Christians’ foreheads with ashes, a symbol of repentance.
The practice of Lent began well before most Christian denominations formed, and many Christians are returning to Lent for Easter preparation, just as they prepare their hearts for Christmas during Advent.
Some of you may be squirming in your chair, worried that Lent contradicts grace. Lent is intended to highlight grace. Like any Christian discipline, God can use Lent as a powerful tool if practiced biblically.
Why did the Nicaea Council choose 40 days for Lent, or 46 when excluding Sundays for celebration? The number 40 is a significant number found many times in scripture. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Rain fell for forty days while Noah floated on an ocean liner with a zoo. Jesus prepared for his ministry for 40 days of fasting in the desert. The Bible includes many more instances of time periods of 40.
Many Christians choose a fast during Lent as did the first apostles. Fasts populate the pages of scripture. People fasted for many different reasons. Below are four reasons people in scripture fasted.
1. Recognize, acknowledge, and repent of sin, especially unbelief
2. Commune with God and worship him
3. Receive God’s wisdom and direction through scripture and prayer
4. Be Fruitful in ministry
Fasts in the Bible do not always consist of giving up food, though that is most common. Food is a natural need, a primal need that speaks to us with more intensity than giving up something less necessary, such as a type of social media. (I can hear some of you disagreeing with me about the necessity of social media!) Food fasting affects us bodily, our stomach gurgles and our mouth waters.
In today’s time, some people choose to take up a new action instead of giving up something. A fast or an intention to take up something is not meant to change or create a habit, though it may. The main purpose is to grab a person’s attention and act as a reminder to pray and of his/her need for Christ.
I do not keep Lent every year. Some years I am not in the right frame of mind, when too many difficult events have transpired or when I’m too distracted. The years I have engaged in Lent, the extended period of intense seeking God transformed my thinking and drew me into God’s embrace. My understanding and thankfulness for Jesus’ death and resurrection ballooned into joy.
This time two years ago, I searched for a devotional that would walk with me through Lent. I was chagrined that I couldn’t find one. God nudged me to walk with him through Lent and write what he revealed to me along the way.
This collection of writings became Running to the Empty Tomb: Finding the Joy in Easter, a devotional I published January of 2017.
Many of the women in our church who purchased the devotional were unfamiliar with practicing Lent, so I wrote and lead a Bible study that paralleled and expanded on the devotional. That Bible study, A Bible Study for Your Easter Journey, went into print last month.
If you want to enrich Easter this year, check out these two resources. They may be used together or solo. Next week Lent begins, so order them now if you want to use one or both of them.
I make very little on these resources. My goal is to share what God has shown me, so that you might share in my joy.
I am praying for you no matter how you choose to prepare for Easter.
May God richly bless you as you seek him.