What is Lent?

What is it? 

Ireanaeus, c.130-202

Ireanaeus, c.130-202

Lent is forty days of fasting leading up to Easter.  The term comes from lencten meaning ‘spring’ and was an early Christian devotion during the month of March.  We find hints of this spiritual practice as early as the second century (Irenaeus). By c. 325 church bishops and pastors from around the world had convened and were discussing a church-wide season of prayer and fasting leading up to Easter.  Cyril of Alexander (c.376-444) said that the origination of a spring fast came to us from the Apostles.

Why do it?

Becoming by grace what God is by nature
— Athanasius

Athanasius (ca 373) described this 40-Day fasting season as "becoming by grace what God is by nature."  Its purpose has remained as a time of spiritual discipline in which disciples of Jesus remember Jesus's forty days of fasting in the wilderness.   

Traditional site of the wilderness temptation of Jesus, where he was for 40 days and nights.

Traditional site of the wilderness temptation of Jesus, where he was for 40 days and nights.

Two images capture the essence of Lent:  Wilderness (1).  Lent is an intentional wilderness season when we awaken our humanity to the Voice.  We see a flurry of activity with the Voice all around Jesus’s wilderness trek.  At the baptism the Voice thunders, “This is my beloved son, in him I take great delight.” And then the Spirit whisks him into the wilderness, once in the wilderness it’s the Voice’s Word that gives Jesus strength to overcome Satan.  Not only is this the case with Jesus, but both Moses and Elijah fasted forty days in deserts and wildernesses, and the Voice motif emerged there as well. For Moses the Voice on stone and for Elijah the still small Voice.   In the desert we become acutely aware of the sounds of God and we learn to “not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the Voice.” 

1840 a painting of pilgrims making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

1840 a painting of pilgrims making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Pilgrimage (2).  The 40 Days—a long obedience in the same direction—tugs our souls away from the shortcuts, insta-fixes, the get-discipleship-quick schemes, and grounds us in what earlier generations called holiness.  This arduous pilgrimage and diet of God is what we really need.  Of all the generations of Christians our generation needs a baptism of patient journeying, the kind that can only come through a deliberately paced season of fasting and prayer.  We moderns have an insatiable thirst for the immediate, the instant gratification.  Journeying for 40 days cures us of impatience and tempers our heart in the fires of perseverance.  Alister McGrath lists the characteristics of a spiritual pilgrimage: (a) self-denial and hardship.   (b) Vis-a-vis the struggle the discipline to focus on the coming Kingdom of God to which the pilgrimage leads. (c) Communal bonding as we come to see our journey of faith not as an “individual achievement, but as a corporate pilgrimage.”