What is Lent?
Many Christians both protestant and catholic observe a season called Lent that spans from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Lent is generally a time for Christians to reflect upon Christ’s passion, to repent of sin and to pray. In some traditions, fasting or giving something up is a norm. Lent can be a significant time of self-reflection and faith renewal.
Lent is 40 days, but if you look at a calendar you’ll find there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That’s because Sundays aren’t counted.
Is it biblical?
No. The Bible never mentions the word Lent, Ash Wednesday, or Easter. This tradition developed over decades and began in the Catholic church. Lent is widely practiced among protestant denominations as well, but, should it be?
Some would say since it is not mentioned in the Bible that is shouldn’t be practiced. The assumption is that if something is not mentioned in scripture, then it is contrary to the Word of God and should be avoided. The mere appearance or absence of a word in scripture doesn’t equate though to an endorsement or condemnation by God.
Consider many valuable and favorite church practices, such as, Sunday School, Family Night Suppers, Women’s Circles, Vacation Bible School, Rally Days, etc. These are all traditions not mentioned in the Bible, but yet help many people learn and grow in their faith. Tradition in and of itself is not evil or contrary to the will of God.
The real issue is whether or not a tradition helps us uphold or break the God’s commandments. This problem isn’t new. Jesus encountered it with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Let’s look at Mark 7:1-13
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
The problem wasn’t that the Pharisees observed traditions. The problem was three-fold:
- They taught traditions as doctrines.
- They ignored God’s commandments, but held to their traditions.
- Their hearts were distant from God.
So how might this apply to Lent?
Regarding ‘they taught traditions as doctrines’…
Lent should never be taught as if it were a mandate by God. Lenten practices are not mandated, but they can be helpful observances that motivate you to commit to the Lord in greater ways. For example, you could adopt a discipline for forty days of daily acts of kindness or reading through a gospel.
Regarding“they ignored the commandments of God, but held to their traditions”…
Do your traditions help you honor God? If you decide to adopt a Lenten practice, will what you have in mind honor God and help you be more faithful? For example, the first time I adopted a Lenten discipline, I did something that appeared on the surface to have no spiritual value. I purged forty bags of possessions from my home and office. My life had become cluttered with excess. Spiritually, I needed to purge, become a better steward, and trust God more fully. Another year I prayed an hour everyday. This transformed my relationship with God.
Regarding ‘their hearts were far from God’…
Examine your motivation whenever you adopt a discipline, whether it be for Lent or not. Jesus was referencing a scripture from a time when the Israelites were actually doing what God required regarding sacrifice, but God was displeased. Why? Their hearts were completely contrary to His will.So, what is the bottom-line about Lent?
Lent can be a tradition for the sake of tradition. That doesn’t honor God. Or, it can promote significant growth in your faith. The critical difference between the two experiences depends on your intention and your obedience. Is your motivation to draw near to the Lord, grow in your faith, or some other spiritually worthy objective? Are you choosing to commit to actions which will help you walk more obediently?
by Rev. John Arnold