A Historical Look at the Season of Lent
On Wednesday, we entered the 40-day journey toward Easter weekend. This period has historically been referred to as Lent. Earle E. Cairns in Christianity through the Centuries writes about the origin of the Lenten season,
The emergence of a cycle of feasts in the church year may be noted in this era (100–313 A.D.). Easter, originating in the application of the Jewish Passover to the resurrection of Christ, seems to have been the earliest of the festivals. Not until after 350 was Christmas adopted in the West as a Christian festival and purged of its pagan elements. Lent, a forty-day period of penitence and restraint on bodily appetites preceding Easter, had been accepted earlier as a part of the churches’ cycle of worship before the adoption of Christmas (116, parentheses mine).
In Devotions for Lent from the Mosaic Study Bible (https://www.bible.com/reading-plans/105-devotions-for-lent-from-holy-bible-mosaic), the Introduction provides us with both the aim and the fit of Lent into the rhythm of the Christian annual calendar,
Lent is the season when Christians have historically prepared their hearts for Easter with reflection, repentance, and prayer. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and proceeds for forty days, culminating in Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Since Sundays are weekly celebrations of the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays in Lent are not counted as part of the forty-day season. Many Christians choose to fast throughout the season of Lent, but the focus is not so much on depriving themselves of something as it is on devoting themselves to God and his purposes in the world.
Here is a look at the Christian calendar and Lent’s place in the mix:
2015–2016 Christian Calendar
||November 29, 2015
||Focuses on the anticipation of God’s coming into the world, both in the incarnation and at Christ’s 2nd coming
||December 25th, 2015
||Concentrates on the birth of Christ
||January 6th, 2016
||Centers itself in the light of God’s presence shining in the world
||February 10, 2016
||Directs our attention toward human mortality, sin, and God’s gracious solution in Christ
||March 27, 2016
||Celebrates resurrection life in Christ
||May 5th, 2016
||Turns attention to the benefits toward the believer because of Christ’s ascension to the Father
||May 15th, 2016
||Helps us to remember and participate in the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in the world
There are times in the history of the church, particularly during the Middle Ages, that the seasons of the Christian calendar have served to restrain or even abuse real spiritual growth. A Young Calvinist blogger named Justin Smidstra notes,
Many of us may not have paid much attention to this, since the church year and the “liturgical seasons” do not play a very large role in the Reformed churches and many other Protestant churches as well. There are some historic and sound reasons for this. During the middle ages the observance of Lent became an excessive practice, which emphasized works righteousness, and came to be associated with all sorts of superstitious beliefs. The Reformers condemned these abuses and for this reason rejected most of the Lenten practices of their day, such as the mandatory forty day fast. We do not dispute their wisdom in this.
Certainly the Puritan in us shouts, “Lent is everyday. Easter is everyday. Incarnation is everyday. We do not need a seasonal calendar; rather we preach the full gospel to ourselves and others daily.”
So, what do we do with Lent and the rest of the seasons? To practice, or not to practice? I personally think there is a balance that can be found. The benefits of the Christian calendar are its organization, its simplicity, and its strict focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The dangers of the Christian calendar are those about which the early Reformers warn—developing a mindset that grace from God is somehow gained or missed depending on my faithfulness to the calendar or superstitious beliefs becoming attached to the practice. However, the former can be remedied by faithful teaching about saving grace coming to us through Christ’s faithful work alone. The latter problem of superstition has always been a problem the church has faced. As early as the days of the papyrus copies of the New Testament, we have evidence that Christians would copy for themselves a portion of the Gospels or Acts where healing, miracles, or great power was demonstrated by Jesus or the apostles. They would “roll it up” and keep it with them as an amulet, which they believed would keep them free from sickness, demons, and other dangers. The cure for superstition isn’t necessarily an avoidance of the Calendar, nor an avoidance of the Scriptures, but rather quality discipleship in the truths and doctrines of Scripture for the Christian life.
I have participated in Lent some years and not other years. There is no law or command in Scripture that demands such participation. In fact, Paul writes in Colossians 2:16–17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” That is to say, all festivals, special days, and spiritual disciplines with food and drink find their substance in Christ. He is the fulfillment of all these things, the end of them if you will. Therefore, the Puritans and Reformers have a point. However, I would say that Paul is not condemning the practice of festivals and the like, rather he is saying that we should not pass judgment on one another or from one church to another regarding these things. Brothers and sisters, we are free to gather and worship Christ in all the fullness of truth and love that we can muster by the Spirit’s help. Calendar or no calendar.
Lent Reminds Us to Practice Repentance and Repentance Is Good
Wherever you find yourself traditionally this Lenten season, I hope you will embrace a regular practice of repentance. It is good to question the appetites of the sinful flesh and to bring them under the control of the Spirit, be it through fasting, prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, silence, or solitude. Romans 6:11 teaches us, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” As you practice the “mortification of your sins” in Christ’s death, also remember the hope and life and power we have because Christ has risen from the dead. For we need not only confession and repentance, but resurrection power to break the chains of slavery that sin has had over us.
Allow me to point you to two places in Scripture that can guide you in the development of regular rhythms of repentance. Let me also call attention to this. It is very appropriate to seek both community repentance and personal repentance from God. For example, our nation needs the gift of repentance from God. The churches in our nation need the gift of repentance from God—both for past sins of commission and omission and for present sins. For this community-approach toward repentance, I turn to Daniel 9:1–23. I have broken down this passage on repentance into 7 parts:
- The Provocation to Repentance (vv.1–2) — The word of God provokes repentance as it reveals truth and grace to us.
- The Posture of Repentance (v. 3) — Genuine repentance seems to be marked by common postures: prayer, fasting, lament (sackcloth and ashes), pleas for mercy.
- The Confession of Repentance (vv. 4–6) — The confession acknowledges God’s faithfulness and love while it also agrees with God about our sinful deeds and our unwillingness to listen to his word. Notice the community and personal aspects in Daniel’s use of the personal plural pronouns.
- The Humility of Repentance (vv. 7–12) — Humility is honest. It lacks prideful attempts to justify. Daniel humbly admits his and the people’s need for the righteousness, mercy, and forgiveness that belong to the Lord and admits their ownership of the shame they have brought on themselves.
- The Resistance to Repentance (vv. 13–15) — While this continues Daniel’s humility, it is specifically highlighting their resistance to “entreat the favor of the Lord.” There is a fight that must take place within repentance. We must fight against resistance and submission to it.
- The Petition of Repentance (vv. 16–19) — Here Daniel finds what we must all find in the process of repentance—a petition based in the will of God for his own glory. Repentance happens when we truly desire God’s will above our own. In the New Testament, we call this dying to self and coming alive unto God. Notice how many times Daniel uses the pronoun “your.” In a quick look in my ESV Bible, I counted 16. He recognizes that God is both the source of the chastisement and the source of their healing.
- The Answer to Repentance (vv. 20–23) — Remember, Daniel started praying because of a prophecy of Jeremiah that provoked him (v. 2). God answers Daniel’s repentance with further insight and revelation into his plan and will. Notice that Daniel’s prayer was heard from the very beginning (v. 23). The answer confirmed God’s love for him, and brought him further understanding.
The second place in Scripture to which I direct you is the temptation of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13; cf. Heb. 2:18; 4:15). Jesus’ forty days and forty nights of fasting and facing the Tempter is typically thought to be the foundation for the 40-day period of Lent. Consider the opportunities for repentance based upon Jesus’ faithfulness:
- Opportunity #1: Is the Word of God Sufficient to Me (Mt. 4:1–4)?
- Opportunity #2: Do I Fear God in Such a Way That Avoids Presumptuous Testing of God in My Decision Making (Mt. 4:5–7)?
- Opportunity #3: Do I Worship God with Submissive Service to His Plan for My Life (Mt. 4:8–11)?
I hope that this has challenged you to feel the necessity of a regular rhythm and seeking of repentance. Repentance is a treasure and a gift from God. May this treasure be yours and mine today and in the days ahead.