You may, or may not, have heard the phrase “observing Lent” or had someone say to you that they “gave (insert anything) up for Lent.” If you grew up in a denomination that observes Lent, then you are probably familiar with how and why it is observed. If you did not, no worries. Below is all you need to know and a good refresher for those who may be more familiar.
What is Lent?
Lent is a special time of prayer, fasting, sacrifice, and reflection in preparation for the celebration of Easter.
The History of Lent
Many sources written in the 19th and 20th centuries indicate that Lent was instituted by the apostles themselves and was a 40-day period in preparation for Easter baptisms. However, it is most widely accepted that the traditional 40 day fast emerged after the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. One purpose of the Council was to standardize matters of liturgical practice and church organization. Among these was the establishment of a common date for the Easter feast that, up until that time, had been commemorated on different days in a given year depending on the method of calculation. It is speculated that this fasting period was intended for the new believers preparing for baptism and served as a time to repent and reflect, but evolved into more general practice for all believers.
Not all Protestants observe or even condone Lent. For example, Calvinists described Lent as a “man’s” tradition and a works-based vanity. John Calvin charged that Lenten practices were not a true imitation of Christ. Jesus fasted 40 days to prepare for his public ministry and to testify that his gospel was from God. Calvin argued that Jesus taught no specific times of fasting and Lent “was therefore merely false zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ…”
John Owen, a Puritan theologian, charged that Lent called people more to subdue one’s flesh for its own sake, to count as righteousness, than to an actual belief in the all-sufficient work of a Savior. “The truth is, they neither know what it is to believe nor what mortification itself intends...Such men know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” he wrote.
As evangelicalism rose in the 18th and 19th centuries, the biblical criticism of Lent intensified. The evangelist Charles Spurgeon summed up the evangelical skepticism of Lent stating, “It is as much our duty to reject the traditions of men, as to observe the ordinances of the Lord. We ask concerning every rite and rubric, ‘Is this a law of the God of Jacob?’ and if it be not clearly so, it is of no authority with us, who walk in Christian liberty.”
One can safely conclude that by the end of the fourth century, the 40-day period of Easter preparation known as Lent existed, and that prayer and fasting constituted its primary spiritual exercises. As with most issues in the study of the early history of the liturgy, certainty is impossible and we must be satisfied with possibilities. Judicet lector: let the reader decide.
When is Lent?
Lent 2021 starts on Ash Wednesday, which is February 17, 2021.
How long does Lent last?
Lent begins 46 days before the Saturday of Easter weekend. It is only observed Monday through Saturday each week because every Sunday is viewed as a celebration day of its own. Therefore, Lent is observed for a total of 40 days.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and Easter Sunday, which falls on Sunday, April 4, 2021, is the conclusion of the fasting period.
The number "40" has always had spiritual significance regarding preparation. On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, "Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water" (Exodus 34:28). Elijah walked "40 days and 40 nights" to the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb (I Kings 19:8). Most importantly, Jesus fasted and prayed for "40 days and 40 nights" in the desert before He began His public ministry (Matthew 4:2).
How is Lent observed?
Over the years, modifications have been made to the Lenten observances, making our practices not only simple but also easy. Today’s fasting and abstinence laws are very simple: In Roman Catholic traditions, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the faithful fast (having only one full meal a day and smaller snacks to keep up one's strength) and abstain from meat; on the other Fridays of Lent, the faithful abstain from meat. People are still encouraged "to give up something" for Lent as a sacrifice. Technically on Sundays and solemnities like St. Joseph's Day (March 19) and the Annunciation (March 25), one is exempt and can partake of whatever has been offered up for Lent.
In Protestant traditions, the Lent season is observed by fasting, service, and prayer. Fasting can be giving up anything that distracts you from God. I can include TV, social media, dietary habits, etc. This is something that clutters your life and takes your attention. Service is often the practice of adding something to your routine. This can be volunteering, participating in a new Bible study, community service, or church activities. Prayer during Lent is intentional and more focused. The intention is to use the time or attention you gain from whatever you are fasting from and use it for connection with the Lord.
Although the practices may have evolved over the centuries, the focus remains the same: to repent of sin, to renew our faith, and to prepare to celebrate the sacrifice of Jesus and his resurrection which is the means to our salvation.