I am posting this on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 46-day period culminating with Easter Sunday. These 46 days, minus the six Sundays, are observed by many Christians as Lent. Evangelical Christians who have not practiced this tradition, and those not claiming any religious affiliation, may wonder just how important Lent is. Well, let’s consider its importance with a quick overview of the observance.
First, what is Lent? It is 40-days of personal sacrifice including repentance, fasting, prayer, giving to others, and reconciliation of relationships with God and others. It was established by the Catholic Church Council of Nicaea in the 4th century AD for personal preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus to be observed on Easter Sunday. Easter would subsequently be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. The word, “Lent,” is a shortened form of the Old English word “Lenten,” which meant “spring.” The Council believed this period to be a reflection of the Old Testament practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes. Thus, the practice of applying ashes to the forehead on Ash Wednesday. The six Sundays of the period would be days of relief from the personal sacrifices for worship and celebration. Therefore, the Lenten season would actually be 46 days.
So, is Lent biblical? As a specific ritual, no. Jesus fasted for 40 days, but did not command us to do so as a sacrament. However, the personal sacrifices of the season are very biblical and are to be practiced by Christians year-round, not just during the 40 days. There is nothing wrong with setting aside these particular days to discipline oneself to be be more sacrificial and to draw more closely to the Lord. It can be much like a time of personal revival–a time for special focus on our relationship with Jesus and His death, burial, and resurrection. However, all Christians should be careful not to just go through the motions in deference to the season without a true change of heart and a spiritual renewal. The elements of Lent should be a constant and life-long lifestyle.
The Bible is specific about praying and fasting discreetly so as not to gain the attention of others. We should be a testimony and an example to others of our faith in Christ. But we must always test ourselves ensuring that we are not “performing” for others to gain their respect or favor.
So, to the question of whether Lent is important, I believe the objective of the tradition is important. What is most important, though, is that we maintain a heart for that objective constantly, not just during the 46 days before Easter.