Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “sprint.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin His ministry.
Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is also a time of self-examination and reflection. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others.
Sundays in Lent aren’t counted in the forty days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter” and the reverent spirit of Lent is tempered with joyful anticipation of the Resurrection.
Lent is traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It began as a way for Catholics to remind themselves of the value of repentance. The austerity of the Lenten season was seen as similar to how people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes.
We see an example of this in Esther 4:1-3: “When Mordecai learned all that had been done, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate clothed in sackcloth. And in every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and many of them lay in sackcloth and ashes.”
We also see an example of this in Daniel 9:3: “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking Him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”
The reason we celebrate lent for forty days is a reflection of Jesus’ life and the desire to follow in His example. In the New Testament, the Lord fasted for 40 days and nights in preparation for the beginning of His public ministry. We model our 40 day season of Lent today o this holy tradition, established throughout Salvation history, the story of God’s relationship with humanity. Most importantly we observe these 40 days of Lent. In imitation of our Lord – the example for us all.
Individuals who celebrate Lent often think of it as a dreary season of self-denial and restraint. While denying yourself is an aspect of Lent, this notion doesn’t capture the full picture of what the season is really about. People who focus too closely on what they hate giving up miss something so important behind its meaning.
Similar to Jesus’ journey in the wilderness, we are confronted with temptation. But we know denying things that separate us from God allow us to begin again, and grow in our relationship with Him. During Lent, we are separating ourselves from our old life, and embracing new life through Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter. We are also making resolutions and committing to change our lives in an effort to be more like Christ. In Matthew 16:24 we are told that Jesus said to His disciples “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This speaks to the part about self-denial. If we want to filly embrace Christ, we have to deny our whole self – this includes anything that comes in conflict with receiving Christ, and prepares us for a new beginning in Him.
We are also told in John 11:25-26 that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. “He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” This again speaks to self-denial. As we let go of sin, and constantly work towards building our faith, we begin to receive the fullness of Christ, and enjoy the pleasures of new life in Him.
Another reason so many Christians struggle through Lent is because they don’t take the time to actively pray. Prayer is especially important during Lent because it helps us grow in our relationship with God, and also gives us strength to endure anything we will confront on our journey. Without prayer, we can’t develop a closer, more intimate relationship with God. We are told in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Prayer is an essential part of Lent, and also essential in helping us deal with any situation we’ll confront in life that may weaken us or separate us from new life in Him.
It’s important we keep our eyes focus on Jesus as we journey through Lent. The example of Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness helps us prepare for our own Lenten journey. This period was a time of struggle, where the Devil attempted to play on Jesus’ human longings, like physical hunger.
Matthew 4: 1:1-3 says “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” But Jesus was not moved. “Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4). The devil didn’t stop there and continued to test Jesus’ strength in his physical weakness. Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” (Matthew 4:5-6). But Jesus was not moved. “Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” But the devil still wasn’t done. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8) But Jesus was disciplined, and unmoved. “Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended Him” (Matthew 4:11).
While the devil attempted to sabotage Jesus over and over again, our Lord and Savior embraced living in a way that was consistent with His Father’s Will. He wouldn’t allow his human needs to control, or master His life. We too have to remember this on our Lenten journeys. Yes, it will be a time of struggle, self-denial and restraint, and we will confront temptation, and weakness along the way. But if we embrace a life with God through Jesus, as opposed to a life of self-indulgence through sin, we are living out God’s Will and will ultimately grow with Him.
So many Christians struggle through Lent because they focus on what they’re giving up, not on building up their relationship with God. Nothing’s wrong with giving up chocolate for Lent, but you have to ask yourself if what you’re giving up is really separating you from having your best relationship with God, and after this period, how did you grow in your relationship with Him?