By Nate Parry | Posted September 19, 2018
The season of Lent is upon us. My first encounter with this season came a number of years ago. A girl that attended the youth group I was a part of showed up with a cross drawn in ashes on her forehead. I had vaguely heard about this Christian tradition but didn’t know much about its origin or purpose. I naively assumed that it was strictly a Catholic practice that a few rogue Christians still observed due to personal or religious traditions. I safely assume I am not the only person to have wondered what this season is about, or what its purpose is within the life of a believer.
What is Lent?
Lent is the 40 day period within the church calendar (Beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter Sunday) that focuses on the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus and culminates in the joy and celebration of his resurrection. A concise and wonderfully articulated description of Lent comes from a guide (More on this below) that I am using this year while participating in this season. It describes Lent this way.
“Lent is a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate the death (Good Friday) and resurrection (Easter Sunday) of Jesus. It is this very preparation and repentance—aimed at grasping the intense signiﬁcance of the cruciﬁxion—that give us a deep and powerful longing for the resurrection, the joy of Easter.” 1
Like many seasons within the Church calendar (Advent, Christmas, Easter, Epiphany) Lent has its roots in the ancient historic practices of the Christian church. Many trace the beginning of this season (though it is debated) all the way back to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where it first officially appears as a 40 day period observed within the life of the Church. Christians for centuries have participated in this period of lament through spiritual practices such as fasting, repentance, and self-denial. The purpose is to cultivate space for reflection on the suffering, death and sacrifice of Jesus.
But should Christians observe Lent today? Here are, what I believe to be, three benefits to observing Lent.
1. Gospel Orientation
Observing Lent can often turn into a second wack at failed New Year’s resolutions or a chance to improve our social-media discipline. It’s tempting to use this season to gain a notch on our proverbial “spiritual belt.” But in mistakingly using it as a chance for behavior modification we rob ourselves of the true message of hope and restoration woven into this season. The gospel.
The seasons of the church calendar are signposts that mark and align our year with the message of the gospel. Advent anticipates the coming of our savior. We rejoice in the realization of “God with us.” Epiphany reflects on the life of Jesus, and his light breaking into the darkness of our world. Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and his victory over sin and death. In the same way, observing Lent uniquely ushers us into God’s story of redemption as we identify with Jesus’ pain, suffering and crucifixion. This season helps us frame the story of our life within the truer and better story of God.
2. Longing for New Life
Lent is a season where death is brought to the foreground of our minds. The road to the cross that Jesus endured was paved by the spiritual, emotional and physical death that entered our world because of sin. (Gen 2:17; Rom 5:12) During this season we reflect on the brokenness of our world because of death. We experience death daily in broken relationships, anger, depression, physical sickness, and so many other ways that whisper to us in the quiet moments “things are not the way they are supposed to be.”
To ponder death in this way produces a longing for restoration. A longing for new life. We groan inwardly to be set free from this bondage of death. (Rom 8:21-22) Lent cultivates a deep desire and anticipation for restoration. We await and crave the message of Easter. The joyous news that Jesus has put death to death. Lent is indeed not the end of the story, but a crucial word that manifests and enriches the beauty of the gospel.
3. More of Jesus
One of my favorite descriptions of Lent speaks about it as “…a period to empty ourselves of lesser things so that we might be filled with the greater things of the gospel.”2 Lent has long been associated with giving things up. By engaging in repentance, fasting, and self-denial we make room for our brokenness and sin to be revealed and for the horrific splendour of the cross to fill us.
As we empty ourselves of the cares of this world and embrace the cross we echo the heart of Paul when he writes to the church in Corinth, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) I am often reminded by one of my friends that the ultimate prize for Christians is simply that we get Jesus. This is the ultimate aim and reward of Lent. Not that we would become masters of self-denial, fasting, or any other discipline. Not that we would solely gain wisdom, knowledge or an experience. The true pursuit is the person of Jesus.
Resources for Lent
Lent can be intimidating for those who have never observed it before. There are many resources out there that can help provide structure and guide rails for those looking to participate in this season. I have shared some links below to various resources that have been helpful for me in the past. I hope they might be useful as you embrace the cross and pursue Jesus during Lent.