On March 1st, many churches around our country will begin to observe the season of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service. For many believers in Jesus and those who do not attend church, Lent and Ash Wednesday sound rather strange; and one wonders what Lent and Ash Wednesday have to do with following Jesus in the contemporary world. Someone might say: “I am giving up chocolate for Lent,” and we think, “That sure is weird!! Why in the world would God want someone to give up eating chocolate?”
Lent has been around almost as long as the Church. The word comes from an old Saxon word meaning “spring.” During the first three centuries of the Church, Lent was represented by a several-day fast in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter.
In the year 325, we find the first mention of Lent being a 40-day period. Why 40 days? This period corresponds with Jesus’ 40-day fast found in Matthew 4. But isn’t Lent actually 46 days? Yes, and no. There are six Sundays in the season of Lent, and Sundays are considered feast days (i.e. days to eat chocolate if you wish!) and celebration days in honor of Jesus’ Resurrection. Including these Sundays makes 46 days for Lent.
The Season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The imposition of ashes on Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is a custom from the early Church. In this practice, the Church would sprinkle ashes on one’s forehead as an outward symbol of humiliation, sorrow, and repentance for their sin. This Christian Church custom relates to a Jewish custom, from the Old Testament (remember Daniel, David, and the people of Nineveh), in which people would humble themselves before God in complete desperation for his mercy and forgiveness. Ash Wednesday is intended to remind us that we all are sinners, and we will all face death. Although believers in Jesus need not fear death because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, physical death is still a serious matter which calls out for our attention.
The last week of Lent is a remembrance of the last week in Jesus’ ministry culminating in his death on the cross for the sins of humanity. Lent is a serious time of remembrance, reflection, repentance, and for rejoicing in God’s love for us.
Many Christians observe the Season of Lent because Lent serves as a time for self-examination and reflection of our lives and our relationship with the Lord. It is so easy, in our modern culture, to get SO BUSY living and life that we don’t take time to examine our lives in in consideration Lord’s expectations. The practice of Lent encourages this time of consideration and reflection, and Lent gives us 40 days of purpose to change our ways. Shouldn’t we reflect on God all the time? Of course! But sometimes it is helpful to STOP what we are doing and examine our lives before the Lord.
We may give up chocolate for Lent, which might be helpful for our health and self-discipline. However, I encourage you to give up a specific sin in your life and use these 40 days of Lent to change your ways of living before God. You might have an area of disobedience in your life, and this can be a time to begin obeying God and doing His will.
Rather than giving up something during Lent, sometimes God will lead us to take on a spiritual discipline to deepen our spiritual life (e.g., regular Bible Study; a daily Prayer time; regular Church attendance; serving the needy; fasting, witnessing for Jesus).
For many people, Lent is just another ritual and dead custom of the Church; but Lent doesn’t have to be another Church ritual. Lent can be a time of renewal, restoration, and healing for our relationship with God and our relationships with others. Lent should be a time, of 40 days, to change our ways.