On Ash Wednesday, a woman asked her pastor, “Why Lent? Why should Christians observe a season called Lent?” She was a longtime Christian, but had never before taken part in any Lenten observance, since most of her life she was a member of churches that did not “do” Lent.
The topic of Lent brings up the whole topic of the “church calendar” in general—the yearly cycle of seasons shared by most Christians throughout the world (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and many Protestants). But, if it is not in the Bible, why use it?
It is helpful to remember first of all that Lent is just as much a part of the church calendar as are Christmas and Easter. Even many churches who do not use of the rest of the church calendar celebrate Christmas and Easter. At Christmas we celebrate God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ to save us, and at Easter we celebrate the victory that comes by Jesus Christ’s resurrection. The celebrations of Easter and Christmas convey the focal messages of the Christian faith. They provide a crucial focus for us as disciples of Jesus, and put the whole church all on the same page. Still, why add Lent into the mix?
Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Christian preacher and theologian, liked to say, “omnis Christi actio nostra est instructio” — “every action of Christ is for our instruction.” To grow into maturity as disciples of Jesus requires that we attend to the whole life of Jesus, not only to his birth and resurrection. Through Jesus’ whole life among us, God is working to save, to heal, to teach us, to redeem creation.
The season of Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. During Lent we remember that important part of Jesus’ life when he dwelt fasting in the desert for forty days, and was tempted by the devil. Jesus is victorious over temptation.
And late in Lent, during Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, we remember Jesus’ suffering and death. The day is so much brighter when we have been through the darkness. To see the light of Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter, we have to acknowledge the suffering of his execution that precedes it.
In Lent, we are attentive to the parts of Jesus’ life—his self control, his patience, his faithfulness even in suffering—that we hope to gain as his disciples. A yearly observance of Lent is helpful in this respect.
Many people give up something during Lent. But in our culture, fixated on self-improvement as we are, this can result in a big misunderstanding: we start (even if only in the back of our minds) to think of a Lenten fast in terms of a diet! But Lent is not New Year’s Resolutions Round Two! Lent is not about us! Lent is about Jesus Christ.
In Lent we might give up something, do a specific prayer discipline, or change something to push ourselves spiritually. But the point is not self-improvement. The point is not even just self-denial which is actually the setting aside of our own interests in order to discern God’s interest. The point is to feel a little discomfort, a little pain, and by that to be constantly reminded of the love of our Savior Jesus Christ, who denied himself, that is gave up his own interests, or made the intentional choice to face the cross for our salvation.
If you observe Lent with prayer and fasting, use that prayer and fasting first of all to remember Jesus. If Lent is not about getting to know Jesus Christ better, it really is a waste of time.