What Christians Get Wrong About Lent
On Ash Wednesday, a look at what Lent is really about.
When I was a little kid, I remember asking my parents what “Lent” meant. I had seen the word placed on a sign outside of a local Catholic church just above the words “Fish Fry.” The reply I received was that it was “a Catholic thing.” I didn’t know much about Catholics back then, so I mostly shrugged it off.
As I grew older, I saw more people talking about Lent. Even those who weren’t Catholic. Our own evangelical church even began to talk about fasting during Lent.
What draws Christians from different backgrounds into Lent? As Lent starts today, it’s time to evaluate the deeper meaning of Lent. I personally think we embrace Lent because we intuitively realize these rhythms of spiritual life are part of giving our lives in worship—they have been in the Church for ages.
Many of us think of Lent as a period where we give something up for God in order to honor His sacrifice on the Cross for us, which we commemorate on Easter. While this is partially true, it’s not exactly how the early Church saw Lent. It’s more about anticipating the full impact of Easter for the time we’re in now and when Christ returns.
When we talk about “giving something up for Lent,” let’s be honest: we usually mean “I’m going to throw God a bone.” But the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is meant to be a time where we take ourselves out of time and out of the business of our world to spend time dying to ourselves. It’s not just our way of giving Jesus Christ a pat on the back, but it’s first about re-centering our will to His and secondly living that out in the world.
The word “lent” comes from the old English word for spring and was meant to mirror the Jewish passover. Lent consists of 40 days. The 40 day period mirrors the 40 days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai and the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. The Church recognized the need for shadowing these times as they showed in Scripture in order to remember the divine narrative leading up to the Cross. By the time Palm Sunday comes around, we are celebrants of the coming King. And then on Easter, the love story of God is completed with an empty grave. It’s a living memory, and in celebrating Lent, we’re living through it ourselves in a way.
Every fast and feast in the Church for the past 2,000 odd years has been given to the whole body to remind us that Christ’s actions effect us, even now. They are spiritual seasons, reminding us that our sins are forgiven, death is abolished and Christ is risen, even now. They’re for our encouragement, so that when we stand in worship on Easter Sunday, we can confidently repeat the words of Gregory the Theologian, who said “Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him.”
It’s also important to remember in times of fasting, such as Lent, that we’re not just “giving something up,” but we’re “giving something over” and the less we take, the more we can give. Christians always saw this time as one for alms-giving, the practice of giving to the poor and needy. So, when we think of Lent, we think of service and pouring out into the streets so that the world can know the riches of the love of God. As we do all these things, the love of God becomes clearer in our hearts. As Father Fulton J. Sheen said:
We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue, a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative. A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.
None of this means fasting isn’t important. Rather, it’s exceedingly important when done with the right heart and attitude. As Fr. Sheen said, our repentance leads to God filling us with more of Himself. Fast with the intention of receiving and not just giving.
Lent is the spring of hope for all who believe that the tomb is empty and the oppression of sin and death is released. It is the spring of hope for those mourning and grieving. This time of fasting is both a releasing to God but also a proclamation of freedom through Christ. More than that, it’s also sharing that hope to others through giving our own lives away, just as Christ did for us on the Cross.