While growing up, Lent was absolutely mysterious to me. Our church did not celebrate it, but I had several friends who did in their churches. In my naïve, misunderstanding, little mind, I had pegged it as legalism and ignorance of empty rules. As I have gotten older, and the more I’ve learned about it, the more significant it has become to me. Yet, I find it to be something that is still mysterious and misunderstood by the evangelical church today. People often believe that it’s merely giving something up from Ash Wednesday to Easter, and this is a popular misconception. So, I thought I would write a bit on the subject to hopefully help clear the air.
Before I get too far into this, I do want to explain that this is strictly a church tradition. There is nothing in Scripture that commands it, and people are not holier or less holy depending on whether it is celebrated or not. I can only speak for myself and say that it has greatly impacted my spiritual walk in the past and I find it beneficial for my own friendship with God, whether it’s Scriptural or not is irrelevant to me.
Ash Wednesday starts off the Lenten season. It’s a day when people usually attend a short church service, and ashes are placed on the forehead in the shape of a cross by a minister who states, “For dust you are and dust you shall return” from Genesis 3:19 (or Ecclesiastes 3:20). The ashes come from the palms used during Palm Sunday the year before. Most people leave the ashes on their forehead as a sign of humility to let the world know that they are sinners in need of repentance, and that Christ is our only salvation.
Lent is very different than Advent. Advent is the time before Christmas as we celebrate Christ’s first coming and anxiously anticipate His second coming. Lent is a time before Easter to lament, mourn, and grieve a fallen world on a corporate AND individual level. Lent is a time to declare, “We need a Savior!” We see in several places of Scripture, mourning, grieving, and repentence was signified by sackcloth and ashes, so it only makes sense to include ashes in the celebration of this season. (i.e. Jonah 3:6, Job 16:15, Esther 4:1-3)
Lent is traditionally noted to take place 40 days before Easter to commemorate the 40 days Jesus was in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan. (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13) Often Christians fast from eating meat or chocolate. Other Christians make a commitment not to gossip. Other Christians may take something out of their schedule and replace it with something else, such as giving up a half hour of TV and replacing it with Bible Study and prayer. And yet others may add theological study about humility. There are several different ways to celebrate Lent and it doesn’t matter how one does it, as long as the focus is on the need of the cross and resurrection of Christ in a fallen world.
There is one common misconception about Lent that is so vital that we miss! Many people think Lent means fasting for 40 days from Ash Wednesday all the way to Easter. The problem with this, is that if you were to pull out a calendar and actually count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter you will find there are 47 days!!! Not 40 days!!! So…. Why is that? The reason being is because EVERY SUNDAY between Ash Wednesday and Easter is Resurrection Sunday! Every Sunday is a day to free ourselves from mourning, grieving, fasting, and repenting in order to celebrate Christ’s resurrection! Therefore, fasting ONLY occurs from Monday-Saturday, but on Sunday, we celebrate! There are 47 days, because the 7 Sundays of Lent do not count in the 40 days.
Wednesday, February 10, is Ash Wednesday this year, and Easter falls on March 27th this year, and I ask you to quietly contemplate in your own heart, what will you do this year to celebrate Lent? How do you want the cross and resurrection to affect you this year? What do you hope to learn?