Observing the Season of Lent

‘Tis the season when St. Louis is filled with annual celebrations related to the season of Lent: Ash Wednesday, Lenten lunches, fish frys, and Holy Week. Where did this season come from? Can we observe it in a way that is spiritually helpful? At Central, we observe the season of Lent corporately in worship services on Sundays and in Holy Week, so we will benefit most if we understand why we do so and what it can and should mean in our lives.

The Lenten season is the forty-day period during which the church prepares for the celebration of the season of Easter. When it first emerged in church history, Lent served primarily as a time of intense instruction, fasting, and prayer for converts to the Christian faith in the days leading up to their baptism. The practice of observing forty-days probably arose in Alexandria, Egypt in the third century as an imitation of fasts by Moses and Elijah as well as Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness following his baptism, which was celebrated on Epiphany (January 6) by Christians in the eastern Roman empire. Following the council of Nicea (325 A.D.), the forty days of Lent were shifted to the period leading up to Easter, which became the annual day for administering baptisms in many churches. This pre-Easter observance of Lent quickly became the universal Christian practice.

Eventually Lent became a discipline observed by the whole church and not simply new converts. It is a season of reflection and self-examination, of self-denial and lament, of repentance and spiritual renewal as we meditate on the life of Jesus and his call for us to follow him as his disciples. During Lent, almost all churches that follow the liturgical year hear readings and sermons from the gospels, which tell us of Christ’s humiliation and suffering as he sacrificed himself to serve a fallen and broken world even to the point of death on a cross. And in the gospels we also hear Jesus’ summons to take up our own cross and follow the path of suffering service for the sake of God’s kingdom that he first followed on our behalf as the Suffering Servant-King. We will hear this same call in sermons at Central as we examine aspects of Jesus’ character and mission that led him to his death.

For Jesus, this path led ultimately to his crucifixion for the sins of the world, and thus Lent culminates in Good Friday when we hear and meditate on the cross. Our worship banners point us to the end of Lent’s journey by showing us the cross with its nails and crown of thorns that led to our Savior’s death. The color purple symbolizes Jesus’ royalty (seen in the purple robe he wore as he was mocked by Roman soldiers), and the spirit of penitence that should characterize our lives as followers of this king.

While this all sounds depressing and negative, the purpose of Lent is actually quite positive and liberating. Lent is best viewed as a time of letting Jesus inspect our lives and take a spiritual inventory. It is a time to focus on being conformed to the image of Christ according to the pattern of sacrificial love that he gives to us and works in us. Some of the sacrifices that we need to make are cleaning out sinful attitudes and habits that hinder us from following Jesus and establishing new habits and practices that enable us to experience the abundant life that we can find in loving and serving God. (Of course, we should repent of our sins and seek spiritual growth at all times, not just during this season. Observing Lent as an annual season in the corporate life and discipline of the church simply provides an intensified period of doing what we should do all the time.)

This is why fasting and an intensified practice of prayer have always been key disciplines for Lent. Prayer with fasting is a powerful way of focusing our hearts upon God. By giving up something that we desire in order to seek God, we can learn self-control, break bad habits, and break away from the idolatry of loving God’s gifts more than God himself. Fasting with prayer can also strengthen our spiritual hunger for communion with God so that we learn by experience that God is the true source of our deepest satisfaction. Of course, some people approach this discipline during Lent in a superficial way by doing it merely because of desire for approval from others or because they wrongly think it somehow merits God’s favor. But those abuses should not cause us to lose sight of the value of the season observed faithfully. “Giving up something for Lent” could be just the discipline we need to expose and break the hold of some sin in our life and set us on a new path toward greater faithfulness and reliance upon God’s transforming power. (For an excellent resource on fasting, see the book A Hunger for God by John Piper).

As we strive to heed Jesus’ call during Lent, we must remember that our motivation and strength to follow the Lord is the hope of Easter. Lent’s journey ends not at the cross on Good Friday but at the empty tomb on Easter. Because we are united by the Holy Spirit to the resurrected Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, we can face our own sins and weaknesses with faith and hope. In Jesus, we know that we are forgiven and accepted by God, and we have hope for real healing and transformation in our lives.

In conclusion, the great scholar of liturgy Alexander Schmemann reminds us how the reality of Easter makes the observance of Lent possible and how it should impact our daily lives:

Is it necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is “brighter than the day,” who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it….On Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and live by it. It is a gift which radically alters our attitude toward everything in this world, including death. It makes it possible for us to joyfully affirm: “Death is no more!” Oh, death is still there, to be sure, and we still face it and someday it will come and take us. But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death, made it a passage—a “passover”—into the Kingdom of God, transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory.

Such is the faith of the Church….Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us? … We simply forget all this—so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations—and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes “old” again—petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless—a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. … We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various “sins,” yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.

So let us rediscover Lent. A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see—far, far away—the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our Lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon.

If you want to strengthen your practice of prayer during this season, you can sign up to receive Central’s daily prayer guide (http://www.centralpres.com/prayer-guides/), which provides daily prayers and scripture readings on the themes of the Sunday liturgy.

For more information about the season of Lent and for resources to assist you in worship and spiritual growth during this season, see the Lent page under the Liturgical Calendar tab at the top of this page.

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