How Is Lent Relevant Today? Part One - An Overview of the Christian Festival of Lent
How Is Lent Relevant Today?
Part 1: An Overview of the Christian Festival of Lent
The History of Lent
LENT WAS FIRST MENTIONED in 325 A.D. by the Council of Nicaea, which issued twenty canons: detailed instructions relating to church life. The fifth of these canons dealt with Lent, a period of forty days of preparation leading up to Easter Sunday. Previously, Christians had spent just a few days preparing for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.
The Council of Nicaea chose a forty-day period based on Jesus’ time of fasting in the wilderness:
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” Matthew 4: 1-2 (NIVUK)
The word for Lent in many languages, including Italian, Spanish and French, translates to ‘forty’, derived from the biblical period of fasting as mentioned in the above passage of scripture. The English word for Lent, however, has its roots in an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘lengthening’.
This lengthening can have a literal meaning in the lengthening of days during the season of Spring when Lent traditionally occurs. It can also be seen in a spiritual light: the aforementioned Fifth Canon promoted the importance of forgiveness and harmony within the church community. At the time of the fifth canon, the Eastern and Western churches were united as one.
Giving Up for Lent
Fasting is traditionally associated with Lent. In modern times Lent can almost be seen as a second opportunity to revive failed New Years’ Resolutions. Giving up alcohol or chocolate, for example, can give one a nice warm feeling that we’re doing something good; invariably these periods of abstinence are followed by a big ‘blow out’ at Easter.
Church history reveals varying levels of fasting which have, over time, reduced from the original strict regimes. Even the counting of the forty days varied from church to church. Eastern churches fasted only on weekdays; in the West, Saturdays were included but there was one less week. Both regions were strict in their abeyance – only one meal, in the evening was allowed; meat, fish and animal products were forbidden.
Prior to the Seventh Century, Lent started on the fortieth Sunday, known as the Quadragesima. During the time of Gregory The Great, the first day of Lent was moved to a Wednesday to mark forty days, excluding Sundays, until the Saturday before Easter Sunday.
Gregory, considered the father of the mediaeval papacy, introduced the ceremony of marking the foreheads of Christian believers with a cross, from ashes, a practice that many churches still conform to. Thus, the first day of Lent became known as Ash Wednesday. The use of ashes reminds us of God’s word to Adam, “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:19 (NIVUK). Ash is also referred many times in the Bible as a symbol of repentance, e.g. the term “sackcloth and ashes”.
The Relevance of Lent Today
Lent is traditionally a time for fasting, prayer and giving. Fasting can be a form of penitence, depriving oneself of something we enjoy, or it can have a positive spiritual effect on how we pray. Giving up chocolate or alcohol, for example, although a struggle initially, can make us feel good about ourselves for a job well done. There can also be positive benefits to our health, not to mention our wealth.
If we take a deeper look at the reasons for fasting (or giving up), we find a connection with our spiritual self. If we take on board a less self-serving attitude to our fasting, we can endure our hardship by looking at how Jesus suffered in the days leading up to his death by crucifixion and the reason why Jesus had to go through this. It was for our benefit: that our sins may be forgiven through His death on the cross and that we should receive eternal life through His resurrection.
In other words, we do not give up things we like just for our own benefit, but to remember why Jesus suffered for our sakes.
Equally, should we choose to give of our time or money to help out others during the period of Lent, let us do it with a giving heart, not with the thought that we are doing something good, that will somehow repay our kindness with reward for ourselves. Let us take on Jesus’ role and give sacrificially, without due regard for the outcome to our personal finances or well-being.
Relevant Scripture for this Post
Matthew Chapter 6: verses 1-16 (New International Version UK)
Giving to the needy
6 ‘Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 ‘So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 ‘And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 ‘This, then, is how you should pray:
‘“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,[a]
but deliver us from the evil one.[b]”
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
16 ‘When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Do You Know Jesus?
If you do not know Jesus, or maybe you really don’t understand the question, you may have many questions that need answering. There are many people: church pastors, Christian friends and online resources where you can find the answers to those questions.
In the first instance you are very welcome to contact me. My telephone number is +44 7906 710 979 or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I personally recommend a resource called Try Praying. You may have seen banners advertising it in your area. You can get a booklet or a phone app. Click here for full details.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post and you have received something worthwhile from it. The next post in this series will be available from 23rd February 2021. If you have any further question, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me at the above telephone number or email address.