What is Lent?

Lent is typically associated with Catholics, though some Protestants observe it as well. Customs surrounding Lent are various and their origins are uncertain. Lent is neither a biblical mandate nor a biblical tradition, but is instead a liturgical tradition. In general, it can be said that Lent is a six-week, or 40-day (excluding Sundays), period of fasting prior to Easter. The intent of the fast is to demonstrate penance in preparation for Easter.

In most Western traditions, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes either on Maundy Thursday or on Holy Saturday. In Eastern tradition, Lent begins on Clean Monday (the Monday seven weeks prior to Easter) and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Still others observe an eight-week period of Lent, which excludes both Saturdays and Sundays. The 40 days of fasting is meant to represent Jesus' wilderness temptation (Luke 4:1-12) or the supposed 40 hours He spent in the tomb. The number 40 may also be used because it is an important number in the Bible—for instance, the number of days of rain in Noah's Flood (Genesis 7:4), the amount of time Moses spent on the mountain with God (Exodus 24:18), and the number of years the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness (Numbers 14:33).

The Lenten fast is observed differently by different people. Historically, for some it has consisted of abstaining from all animal products; for others, fish and/or poultry were allowed. Some ate only bread. Some would fast for a full day, whereas others would fast until mid-afternoon. Commonly, people ate only one small meal per day. Depending on the church authority of the time, exceptions to the fasting guidelines could be made, often when paid for. In addition to restricting the quantity and type of food eaten, festivities were also often limited. Too, it was expected that people focus on prayer and acts of charity.

In current-day Western societies, Lent is considerably changed. Some still observe fasts that restrict quantity and type of food. Many view Lent as a time in which to give up a particular vice, bad habit, or pleasurable thing. For instance, they will vow to stop swearing, restrict time spent playing video games, or give up sweets. Still others choose to add a new habit to their routines—such as acts of kindness or prayer times.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with preparing for Easter through some form of self-denial or intentional good works, it is important to realize that these will not win us God's favor. For some Catholics Lent has taken on almost a sacramental element; some believe that by observing Lent they will win God's blessing. However, we know that our salvation is dependent solely on God, and not on our works (Ephesians 2:8-10). God will never love His children any more than He already does, and He cannot love us any less (Romans 8:38-39).

Additionally, it is important to check one's motives for observing Lent. Regarding fasting, Jesus taught, "And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:16-18). It is not wrong to tell others about one's Lenten observance. However, we must not wear our abstinence or renewed focus on good works as a badge of pride. The intent of a Lenten observance is to recognize our need for repentance and our depravity apart from God (1 John 1:9; Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13), to draw closer to God, and to prepare our hearts for the celebration of Easter.

If a Christian chooses to observe Lent, it should be out of a heart that yearns to truly appreciate the abundant grace of Christ's saving work on the cross. By reminding himself of his need and willfully submitting to Christ's authority, a Lenten observer prepares his heart to celebrate Easter with a renewed sense of joy and amazement. It is not six weeks of self-discipline to impress others or to impress God. Rather, it is a time of humbling oneself before God in a demonstration of dependence and thanksgiving.

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