What Is Lent and Why Should We Bother With It? An Ash Wednesday Primer

As I write this it is Ash Wednesday evening.  (Actually it is about an hour after midnight so it isn’t Ash Wednesday anymore, but I don’t care.  Deal with it.)  And my purpose in writing this is quite simple:  I want you, my fellow evangelicals, to acknowledge and show an increased respect for the season of Lent.

Lent is not very big among evangelicals, for the simple reason that evangelicals have a serious and profound distrust of anything liturgical.  This distrust stems from the lingering influence of the Puritans, who were all about simplifying belief, worship, and practice as much as possible.

As a former Catholic who was turned off by excesses in Catholic belief and practice, I get the Puritan emphasis on simplification.  I do not believe that Scripture and tradition are to be viewed as equally authoritative, but instead that tradition ought to be judged and held in check by Scripture.

We evangelicals are in no danger whatsoever of falling into the same ditch as our Catholic brethren who have elevated tradition to a place of equal authority with Scripture.  Instead, we have fallen into the ditch on the opposite side of the road.  We believe that we who live in the present moment are the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world, and we are completely clueless as to our place in the grand scheme of what God has done throughout the 2,000-year history of the church.

I would like for us to get a clue.  That is why I am taking this opportunity to plug Lent.

So what is Lent?  For those of you who are not liturgically savvy, here is a brief intro.

Lent is a season of preparation and reflection leading up to Easter.  Back up six Sundays from Easter, and then go back to the preceding Wednesday, and you hit Ash Wednesday.  This is the first day of Lent.

Lent lasts for forty days and forty nights.  This corresponds to the forty days (and forty nights, as we find in the Matthew account) that Jesus spent fasting in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry.  It also corresponds to the forty years that Israel spent in the desert before entering the Promised Land, though this connection is not played up as strongly.

Some of the more observant among you my readers have probably noted that there are more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  In fact, the actual count is forty-six days.  So how do we get forty days?  The Sundays of Lent are free days which are not considered part of the actual Lenten season; take them out and the count drops to forty days.

Lent is a time of reflection and spiritual preparation leading up to Easter; this preparation has been typically characterized by fasting.  Nowadays, fasting is limited in those traditions that hold to that aspect of Lent, to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  And even on those days, it is not a true fast in the sense of not eating anything for a set length of time.  Instead, it consists of one or two light meals, one normal-sized meal, and no snacks between meals.  The practice nowadays is to give up something that is of importance to you (such as sweets, chocolate, wine, Starbucks, etc) for the duration of the Lenten season.

So why celebrate Lent?  To prepare for Easter.  Typically, the way we do things in evangelical Protestant-dom is to just go on about our business until Good Friday rolls around, and then just instantaneously shift gears and we’re ready to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But do we honestly think that this is an appropriate way to celebrate the most momentous day on the Christian calendar?  The day which represents our very raison d’etre as Christians, the thing that, if not for this, we would have no hope whatsoever of being in right relationship with God?  No, if we are really honest with ourselves, we will admit that we need time to focus our hearts around this.  And that is what the season of Lent is intended to provide.

Even Jesus didn’t just roll into Jerusalem one day and say, “Okay, I’m ready to die on the cross now.  Go ahead and string me up.”  If we read the Gospel accounts, we see that it was a gradual progression toward Jerusalem which grew more focused and intentional as the end drew near.

So am I advocating that we all go on a 40-day hunger strike?  No.  Although fasting would be a nice thing to do during this time for those of you who feel up to it.  What I am advocating and asking of you, my fellow evangelicals, is that during the coming 40 days we would think twice about indulging in some of the luxuries that are common to our lives here in America.  Let us instead focus our attention upon Christ and upon the cross which lies squarely across our path and which will loom ever larger as Good Friday approaches.  And as we consider the issue of fasting, let us do so in light of Isaiah 58: 6-9:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen;
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the chains of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.