What, exactly, is LENT?

This Wednesday, Feb 17, is Ash Wednesday, and the first day of Lent. Many folks must be asking, what is Ash Wednesday, and what is Lent? What is all this, and why?

There are no biblical references to Lent, so, much like the season of Advent, the season of Lent was created and sustained by the Christian church. We think that Lent may have started about the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, and it became a sacred season on the church’s yearly liturgical calendar. It was a time of baptisms and acts of penance. Traditionally, emphasis was placed on fasting, self-denial and spiritual devotion for 40 days. The 40 days replicate the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness; he withdrew into the desert, where he was tempted, but boldly prepared for his ministry (accounts in all the Synoptic Gospels). 

The word “Lent” is derived from a Latin word that means “fortieth.” In Old English, the word “Lencten” was used for “spring season.” In any event, from ancient times, Lent is a fasting period, or “the great fast.” For 40 days, the focus is on prayer, penance, “mortifying the flesh,” self-denial, almsgiving and repentance of sin. The purpose is to become closer to God and to remember the tremendous sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

In more modern times, Lent is observed in many different ways in different churches, in different countries, all across the world. It has become a time to focus on the spiritual disciplines, daily devotions, prayer and abstention from food and festivities (except on Sundays). Many people even today abstain from eating meat. Flowers are removed from worship centers, and church images such as the cross are veiled. Again, the point is to focus on God, draw nearer to him, and recall the passion of Jesus.

“Ash Wednesday” was derived from the ashes of trees. On this day, a priest places a cross on the person’s forehead to publicly disclose one’s devotion to the Christian faith during Lent. The ashes are an outward sign and symbol of an inward blessing for the upcoming Lenten season. Truly, Christ can bring new life and new beauty from ashes.

With a bit of irony, “Fat Tuesday” is a riotous celebration, feasting and indulgence. The day before Ash Wednesday is called “Mardi Gras,” which means “Fat Tuesday.” As a preface to the abstinence, denial, and sorrowful reflection, people have “one last fling,” the night before Lent begins. The festivities of New Orleans, LA and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are famous for their “Mardi Gras” parades and celebrations. They are not, however, known for their piety during Lent!

Even so, the last week of Lent is known as ‘Holy Week,’ or ‘Passion Week,’ which is essentially the nine days leading up to and including Easter, Resurrection Sunday. It is the culmination of Jesus’ passion and our thoughtful recollection of the significance of the season. So, let’s look at the last week more closely:

Friday, Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover to spend some time with friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Here, Mary anointed his feet with a very costly perfume as an act of love and humility. Lazarus is raised from the dead, anticipating the resurrection of Jesus (Jn 12:1).

Saturday was the Sabbath, a day of rest (not mentioned in the texts).

Sunday was the “Triumphal Entry,” or Palm Sunday (all 4 Gospels).

The Roman road climbed sharply from Bethany to the crest of the Mount of Olives. From the top of the mount, a person had spectacular views of the Desert of Judea to the east and the shining city of Jerusalem to the west, across the Kidron valley.

On the first day of the week, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling an ancient prophecy in Zec 9:9. The crowd welcomed him with the palm branches and the words of Ps 118:25-26, thus giving him a Messianic title, the coming king of Israel. What a contrast to the immediate days which followed.

Monday was the “clearing of the temple” in the Synoptic Gospels. Traders and money changers made a large profit at the temple during Passover. This is also the day that Jesus cursed the “fig tree:” “May you never bear fruit again!” (contrast Jn 15). The fig tree is a symbol of the nation of Israel, so this event predicts Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. In Matthew’s Gospel, the immediacy of the judgment is seen, as the curse and the withered tree happen on the same day.

Tuesday continued as a day of controversy for Jesus, teaching and speaking in parables in Jerusalem (Synoptics).

Jesus avoided traps by the Jewish leaders. The Sanhedrin challenged him, and his answers are indirect, in the form of with two parables.  He taught the people on the Mt. of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, also using parables. He also spoke of the future, by directly warning the people, and predicting the destruction of Herod’s Temple, and his own return (Luke 21:5-36, the “little apocalypse”).

Wednesday – also unmentioned in the Gospels.

Thursday – “Maundy Thursday,” Passover Seder, Last Supper (Synoptics, John 13).

In an upper room Jesus prepared himself and his disciples for his death. He washed the disciples’ feet before dinner. The word “maundy” is from a middle-English word that implies a mandate or command, which is spoken by Jesus in John 13:34. The actual command is for Jesus’ followers to “love one another, as I have loved you.” However, the church recognizes this day as the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.  

During dinner, Judas the betrayer quickly left the room because he had things to do…. Part of the preparation for his followers was Jesus’ final prayer of intercession for those coming after him (Jn 17). After the “Last Supper,” they sung a hymn and went to the garden of Gethsemane, where his disciples could not stay awake. In the garden, Jesus prayed in agony, knowing what was ahead of him.

“Good Friday” Actually begins very late Thursday night. After his betrayal, arrest, desertion, 2 or 3 false trials, denials, condemnation, beatings and mockery, Jesus was convicted on Friday, and was required to carry his own cross to the Golgotha, “the place of the skull.”

In fact, the Gospels say very little about the actual physical suffering of Jesus on the cross; they say simply, “he was crucified.” We experience the event through the eyes of the other people – the women, the soldiers, the criminals beside him, and the on-lookers at the foot of the cross.

Friday is also the “day of preparation” for the Jews before the Sabbath starts (Jn 19:31).

When “it is finished,” Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb before 6:00 pm Friday evening, which is the beginning of the Sabbath, and all work stopped. Thus, we see that every event of the last hours of Christ’s passion was done quickly so as not to interrupt the Sabbath.

Saturday – Sabbath. His body lay in the tomb, without attention. No doubt his disciples went into hiding all day in fear. This day was a “special Sabbath day,” because it was during the high feast of Passover (Jn 19:31). Do not miss the irony and symbolism here – that Jesus, the “Lamb of God” was sacrificed during the Jewish Passover with all the other lambs “without blemish” were sacrificed. Passover was a celebration of deliverance, salvation and redemption.

Sunday – the most important day in the history of Christianity (all the Gospels). Lent’s journey ends at the empty tomb of Easter and with the great and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. The empty tomb is our hoped-for redemption! A new beginning, new possibilities, new hope, new grace, new love that you have never dreamed of.

As NT Wright has written,

“Easter is about a real Jesus, coming out of a real tomb, and getting God’s real new creation under way…..In particular, if Lent is a time to give things up, then Easter ought to be a time to take things up. Christian holiness was never meant to be merely negative. Easter is the time to sow new seeds and to plant out a few cuttings. If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off as a Christian and as a truly human being, then Easter should mean planting, watering and training up things in your life (personal and corporate) that ought to be blooming, filling the garden with color and perfume, and in due course, bearing fruit. Resurrection Sunday ought to be a time to balance out Lent by taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitful (not dieting and silly abstinence), something outgoing and self-giving.

Take Easter away and you have no NT; you don’t have Christianity. As Paul says, you are still in your sins. We should not allow the secular world, with its schedules and habits and para-religious events, its cute Easter bunnies and chocolate, to obstruct our vision of the true significance of Easter.”

So, we have 40 days to get ready for the greatest day ever! Like Thomas, we may discover that many doubts are answered through a “new, fresh grasp of Jesus’ wounds.”

Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

4 thoughts on “What, exactly, is LENT?”

  1. That was a wonderful explanation of Lent. I was raised Catholic and we observed all the rituals of Lent. All with out explanation. Thank you.

    1. I am so excited to hear from you! That is exactly why I wrote the blog. Thanks so much for reading and responding. Blessings to you and yours!

  2. Thanks for sharing this explanation of the Lenten season and meanings of its traditions. A friend has asked me to explain Easter to her and your blog is the answer to her question. Thank you for the Bible references. Keep up the great work as you are touching many lives.

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