Learning to Lent (Or, A Guide to Lent for Those of Us Who are Clueless)

The purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to ‘soften’ our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the Spirit, to experience the hidden ‘thirst and hunger’ for communion with God.

Alexander Schmemann, “Great Lent”, 31.

Lent is a Christian tradition, that while it has existed for centuries, is relatively new to me. While many Christians around the world – especially Catholics, Anglicans and others who are part of ‘high church traditions’ – practice Lent year-after-year, it has never been part of my church experience.

In fact, it has been this way for most seasons or days on the liturgical, or church, calendar. Advent, as I’ve shared before, was simply a word put in front a chocolate calendar in December. Traditionally celebrated days – like, for example, Pentecost Sunday – weren’t marked on my calendar for much of my life.

This was simply part of being raised in the Pentecostal – and to a larger extent, Evangelical – tradition. Pentecostals, and many of their brothers and sisters in other traditions, choose not to follow the “liturgical” year and mark seasons such as Advent and Lent. While Anglican, Catholic and other similiar churches have a clear structure of what Scripture readings they will read, texts they will preach from, and even songs they may sing in a certain season – Pentecostals (and others) have preferred the freedom to choose what to say, and when – making space for the “Holy Spirit to lead them.”

I love the way I was raised, and I love the Christian tradition I am a part of.
I love the freedom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit being at work.
These things have greatly formed – and continue to form – my relationship with God and the way I live it out.

As I have grown older, however, I have come to deeply appreciate some of the more historical Christian traditions – like Lent. For me, there is something powerful about participating in a particular practice that I know has been practised by Christians for thousands of years before me. However, in trying to integrate some of these practices into my life, I have learned I know very little about them. And I know there are many like me! Many of you may not have grown up practicing Lent, and while the idea sounds nice, have no idea where to start – or even why you would. I even have friends who’ve given up something for Lent for most of their lives, but don’t really know why they’re doing it.

I think it’s important, before integrating any practice into your life, you understand why you’re doing it. In the words that follow, I’d like to dive into what Lent is, why it’s practiced, and why I think it can be significant for Christians today.

What is Lent?

Lent refers to the forty-day period leading up to Easter Sunday (technically, forty-six days, but we’ll get there in a minute). It is, itself not a spiritual word, in fact it simply means “spring”, referring to the season in which Lent occurs (even if, you like me, see no signs of spring on the horizon!).

The forty days are intended to be a time that draws one closer to God through three main practices: fasting, prayer and alms-giving (or acts of charity). If you look at Lent on the calendar, you’ll see it actually incorporates 46 days. This is because Sundays during Lent are not meant to be fasting days – rather, days of celebration. So, you fast for 40 days, and take a “break” on each of the 6 Sundays.

Where did Lent come from?

While fasting, prayer and giving – and even the idea of doing so for 40 days – are all clear Biblical practices, Lent itself is never mentioned in the Bible. It is instead, a Christian tradition – one that has evolved through history.

While, like many events in church history, there is some debate, it seems that a fast leading up to Easter started with the earliest apostles. According to history, this fast was simply one or two days, but as time went on, the fast increased to more days – six or eight.

It’s not clear if these early fasts are linked to the tradition of Lent as we know it today, but we do know that at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the idea of practising Lent as a forty-day fast was discussed. This council was the same one in which the Nicene Creed was developed – a statement of faith widely accepted by Christians today.

Shortly after this, Lent became a more common practice amongst Christians. Forty-day fasts leading up to Easter were encouraged by bishops and church leaders, until they became commonplace in most Christian traditions.

Side Note: If you’re wondering why some Christian traditions don’t celebrate Lent, like the one I – and maybe you – grew up in, it’s largely rooted in the fact that when our movements began and broke away from the already-established church, we also broke away from many of their long-standing traditions. A new way of practicing faith was desired by those in the early days of these movements, and anything connected to the old way that wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the Bible was set aside. While this was (and is!) completely understandable, I believe we are now at a place in history where we can gain wisdom from the long-standing traditions of the Church without feeling bound or held down by them.

What’s the point of Lent?

While it is easy for Lent to simply become about “what I’m giving up”, I dont’ believe that is the point of Lent. The point is why we are fasting a particular thing, and what it is doing in our hearts. Listen to these words from Alicia Britt Chole:

Faith in general, is less about the sacrifice of stuff and more about the surrender of our souls. Lent, in kind,is less about well-mannered denials and more about thinning our lives in order to thicken our communion with God. Decrease is holy only when it’s destination is love.

40 Days of Decrease, Alicia Britt Chole, 2

Phew! That is good stuff. I think that regardless of what tradition you are a part of, you can say Amen to that! I am constantly echoing the words of John in my own life – “He must increase, I must decrease.” In the busyness and chaos of day-to-day life, that often becomes challenging. In our world of excess and instant gratification, giving up comforts or things we love is completely counter-cultural.

Yet, it is often in the giving-up, laying to one side act of fasting that we find ourselves drawing closer to God. When there is “less stuff” in the way, we find more of God.

Leading up to the celebration of Easter – the death and resurrection of Jesus – seems like a most appropriate time to practice this. I want to be close to God, focused on Him and able to fully understand and appreciate the magnitude of what Easter means for us today. Practicing Lent is a way I – and you – can do this.

So, how do I do it?

This is where the hard part comes in. I don’t believe that the practice of Lent needs to be prescribed for each person. Here though, are the basic principles:

  • Decide what you will give up. Remember, the giving up is not the point, but the drawing closer to God because you’ve given something up is. This may be something to prayerfully consider. Some ideas of things to give up may be sugar, fast food, social media, television, unnecessary spending, or caffeine.
  • Make a plan on how you will give that up. Decide what and how that will look like for you. If you’re giving up sugar? Get rid of those sugary snacks! Social media? Inform friends & get ready to delete the app! Be practical.
  • Replace the “given up” with a “God-thing.” If you’re giving up social media, replace that time with prayer, a devotional reading or Bible study. Giving up sugar? Everytime a sugary craving hits, whisper a quick prayer! Giving up unnecessary spending? Ask God to reveal to your heart why that spending may matter so much, and put aside the money to give!
  • Plan for giving during the Lent season. Brainstorm ways you and your family can be exceptionally generous during Lent – with your money, time and talents. Make space to do this during the month.
  • Remember the breaks! Having Sundays as celebratory days can be a great way to remember that Lent is not meant to be legalistic, and give yourself a break. This is especially true if the thing you’re giving up is a sort of necessity in your life (for example, if you use social media for work, planning all your social media for Sunday or if you REALLY need to buy something not completely necessary, do it on Sunday)!

I am excited for what Lent will hold for me this year, and for those of you who choose to practice it. I’m looking forward to drawing closer to God during this season. So, what am I giving up? Well, I’ve been convicted by my friend Christie Thomas’ challenge, and am planning to do the same. Here’s what she says:

Personally, I’ve realized that social media is all consuming. So, this Lenten season, I’m mostly giving up social media. My plan is to schedule posts in advance, and spend no more than 30 minutes per day in total, and only for business purposes.

I’m with her! For me, that’s going to look like deleting social media apps off my phone, and only using social media for (a) my blog and (b) church with just 30 minutes per day TOTAL. A lot of the posts you’ll see from me will be scheduled.

If you’re not giving up social media for Lent, I’m hosting a social media challenge group (with a lot of scheduled posts in advance, haha!) at Julia Ball: Ministry Mom over on Facebook. You can find the link here.

I hope that this Lent season can be encouraging for you, and despite some mild discomfort, draw you closer to Jesus – the one who this is all about.

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