What is Lent? (And Should Christians Celebrate It?)

For millions of people around the world, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, but for some Christians, it's just another day. When most people think of Lent they think of a time to "give something up" in preparation for Easter. But why? Should Christians still celebrate Lent? Is giving something up the only way to do it? Let's dive in to answering some of those questions.

Lent: What is it and how did it begin?

Since I was little, I always knew that “Lent is the season leading up to Easter Sunday.” I also heard somewhere along the line that you should “give something up” for Lent.

Not exactly history. (I had to do a little research prepping for this post.)

Some have thought Lent was established by the apostles in the years following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Officially, nothing was mentioned about Lent until Irenaeus of Lyons (in Western Europe) and Tertullian (in Northern Africa) talked about it in the latter part of the 2nd Century. And here’s the kicker: Lent was only 40 hours…not 40 days!

Dionysius (from Alexandria) stretched that out to six days in the 3rd Century. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) that the length was officially locked in at 40 days.

Now, you might be saying, Hold on! Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. It’s supposed to be 40 days. And Easter is 46 days after Ash Wednesday. Time for some math lessons!

That has to do with not counting the six Sundays. Easter is also known as Resurrection Sunday. Each Sunday during Lent is a “mini resurrection Sunday” where we celebrate the anticipation of Jesus’s resurrection. That’s also why many who fast – or “give something up” – don’t do so on the six Sundays during Lent.

So where did “fasting” or “giving something up” come into play? Glad you asked…

The idea is this: During the 40 days leading up to Christ’s death and resurrection, we intentionally take time to remember and experience (in a tiny way by comparison) what He sacrificed and suffered. Not only what Jesus sacrificed on the cross, but also remembering the 40 days where He fasted (and was tempted by Satan) in the desert. These 40 days were in between when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and when He began His public ministry.

Lent: What are the three elements of "celebrating Lent?"

While different traditions run the spectrum of how to practice Lent, it usually involves some sort of focus on one, two, or all three of these aspects:

Focus on Self: This is the most common aspect. It’s about fasting or giving something up. The idea here is doing something that “costs you something.” I’ve heard everything from coffee, to dessert, to TV, to social media, to… When it comes to fasting, most people either fast (don’t eat anything) one day each week or they give up a specific category (or categories) of food. For example, I met a guy from an Eastern Orthodox background, and he gives up all dairy and all meat.

Focus on God: This is typically an addition of some sort of “spiritual discipline.” It could be 10-15 minutes a day of prayer or silence. For others, there’s a daily reading of a devotional specifically around Lenten topics (leading up to the cross, burial and empty tomb).

Focus on Others: This is the most ignored aspect of Lent. This was originally called “almsgiving.” (The fact that a red, squiggly line showed up under the word “almsgiving” when I typed the last sentence shows how little we use the word!) The idea is taking the money – or time – we save from whatever we give up and either donating it to the poor or using the time to serve someone in need.

Lent: Should Christians celebrate it?

While I do not have a Catholic or Orthodox background, I have made observing Lent a regular practice each year. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like more evangelicals are doing the same.

In all transparency, I have most consistently done the “giving up something” part. I have sometimes done the “add something” part. And sadly, I have not done much with the “focus on others” part. Heavy sigh.

While I am not going to list out my specific decisions here (in an attempt to keep comparisons off the table), I will share them with my wife and a couple friends. Not only do I need the accountability, but I think a sense of community in the living out of our faith is hugely important.

Bottom Line: When it comes to what Jesus accomplished through His suffering on the cross and His defeating of death through the resurrection, I think that anything I can do to be reminded on a daily basis to be grateful to Him is time well spent. Lent is a season where I choose to be intentional about it.

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