Lent — What is it?

Title: Lent – What is It?

Text: Mark 4:17

Time: March 12th, 2012


Ash Wednesday was February 22nd this year to begin the traditional and historical Christian church season of Lent. Of course, the day before was the popular “Fat Tuesday” where people buy high calorie doughnuts called “punchkies” and get indigestion from eating too many of them at once. But the reason for “Fat Tuesday” is to supposedly empty the kitchen cupboards of fat and sugar and other unhealthy substances, and rather than throw them out, instead, put them in a tasty dough mix, bake them and eat them as snack food before the traditional Ash Wednesday fast. The “Fat Tuesday” tradition isn’t widely known outside of Polish and Eastern European communities, but coming from the Detroit area with a large Polish community, I’ve known about it for years. The logic is, since a fast day is Wednesday; bulk up on calories on Tuesday. But I don’t want to talk about indulging and splurging today; instead, I’d like to talk about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. What is the purpose of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent in the Christian calendar? To begin with, many Christians, mostly Protestants, have never even heard of Ash Wednesday or the Lenten season. It’s mostly a tradition with the more liturgical churches, like Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and so forth – churches that follow the traditional order of service or liturgy. These traditional and liturgical churches also follow the historical Christian calendar that dates back many centuries. One of the major dates on the Christian annual calendar is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent before Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Now historically, the weeks before Easter, the Lenten season, represented a time of preparation for catechumens – or those who were joining the church. It was a time set aside for confession and repentance of sin; a time of instruction in the Christian faith; a time of commitment and dedication to the Lord. So in connection with the new converts or new members joining Easter Sunday, the whole congregation fasted, confessed and repented over their sins as well in a time of recommitment and rededication to God. So the whole season of Lent became a time set aside each year for confession and repentance of sin, of rededication and recommitment to God, and a time for personal revival or renewal. Ideally, if a Christian were fully believing and acting as they should there’d never be a reason for a special time period for rededication and renewal. But because the influences of the world, the flesh and the devil; because nobody’s perfect and everyone needs help in living the Christian life consistently, Lent is a good time for everyone to recommit themselves back to God in any way or any in area from where they’d fallen away or fallen off. Many non-liturgical churches, such as Baptist, Congregationalist and Methodist also have such a time, only they call it revival meetings – which for some churches are scheduled yearly. But the purpose is very similar, that is, to point people back to God. So with that bit of introduction, let me explain three things about the season of Lent, what it is and what it isn’t. “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,’” Mark 4:17.


First, Lent isn’t a self-centered project. “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,’” Mark 4:17. The way some pastors and church leaders talk you’d think that on Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent, that the season is for the purpose of personal growth and self-development. I’ve attended some main line churches on Ash Wednesday and heard the pastor say something like, “This is the beginning of the season of Lent, a time we strive for self-improvement and growth.” But that misses the whole point of the reason for the season of Lent. It isn’t just a time of self-help, as if the church needed to get into the self-help business. As if there aren’t already enough secular businesses and organizations preaching the gospel of self-actualization psychology. Now in the historical, traditional observance of the Lenten season there was, of course, personal growth and self-development happening, but it wasn’t given the emphasis. The Christian church, in observing Lent, wasn’t focusing on the individual or one’s self-actualization as much as upon God and getting oneself aligned with God and his will again. But to the modern world today focus on God seems unnatural, seems difficult, and for some people, seems almost impossible. Why? Because we live in a man-centered culture. Everything is centered around the wants and needs of people. For example, look at our political system, democracy. Who determines things; who decides? The people. Or consider our economic system, capitalism. Again, who determines things, who decides in a free market economy? Again, people. Everything in our modern world is man-centered. And everything at an individual level is person-centered. We make most of our daily choices based on what is good for us and those close to us. This is called self-interest. It’s what drives the politics and the economics of our time. But what about God? Where does he fit in to our lives and decisions? Most of the time, to be honest, he doesn’t fit in at all. But that’s one of our big problems in the modern world today – we’ve excluded God from our individual lives and society. It’s a problem that needs to be solved, not a solution that we’re proud to have found. The absence of God in modern times is a problem, not a solution. So when we come to the season of Lent, we shouldn’t turn it into an extension of our selfish pattern of life; but rather, we should let it point us to a different way of life, one that is centered more around God and less around our own selves. If we make Lent all about personal growth and development, about self-actualization, we miss the whole point of observing the season at all. It’s supposed to point us back to God and away from selfishness and sin, not something that reinforces our natural self-centeredness. So Lent isn’t for self-improvement, in the modern understanding of that phrase.


Second, Lent isn’t for superficial, trivial or cosmetic changes. “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,’” Mark 4:17. Another false understanding of Lent is that it’s for making silly and petty minor adjustments to our lives. For example, we often hear people use the phrase, “I’m giving up ice cream for Lent,” or some such resolution. But this trivializes the true understanding of the purpose of Lent. I’ve actually heard pastors in churches on Ash Wednesday trivialize Lent in such a way. One said something like, “We shouldn’t think of the season of Lent as a negative thing, but instead, we should think of it as a positive thing. For example, if we find ourselves eating too much, becoming overweight, why not use Lent as a time to say “No” to that second helping at mealtime.” I heard one pastor say that he’d grown fond of eating ice cream after every evening meal and felt guilty for it, so he decided to use Lent as a good excuse to cut back on his ice cream intake. Again, nothing wrong with watching our weight, dieting, cutting back on sugar, and so forth; but Lent is more serious than that. In the above passage, and in countless other biblical passages dealing with the themes of confession and repentance of sin, the Lord isn’t dealing with trivialities. He’s talking about the radical change that comes about when we center our lives on God rather than ourselves. The issue is where do we center our lives? Confession and repentance in the Bible mean change from the heart outward, not just superficial cosmetic changes. As long as we think of Lent as a season for personal self-improvement or in making little, petty trivial minor changes in our lives we won’t properly observe the season. Again, a person who is truly close to God and maintaining that relationship will be daily in prayer confessing and repenting of sin and selfishness. Such a person will be in daily Bible reading and reflection. But because we all wander in ways great and small, because we don’t hold perfectly to God and his will for our lives, because we need correction now and again, Lent is the perfect season to do so. The real questions we’ll ask during Lent are things such as, “Am I basically a selfish person? Does my life reflect a pattern of selfishness? In what ways am I resisting the convicting power of the Holy Spirit? What areas of my life are lived in deliberate, intentional, willful disobedience to God’s will?” We should get serious when we deal with sin in our life, not trivialize it. After all, it was Jesus who said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell,” Matthew 5:29. There’s nothing trivial, superficial or flippant about that teaching! Lent isn’t a time of superficial change. It’s a time of serious reflection on the state of our holiness before God.


Third, Lent is a time of repentance and recommitment to God. “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,’” Mark 4:17. Lent isn’t just about the negative topic of dealing honestly with sin – although it is about that – but it’s also about a positive turning back to the Lord God from whatever way we’ve gone astray. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep, have gone astray.” So then the goal is to return to the Lord, and Lent is a good time to do so. Again, in most Protestant churches, the traditional, historical season of Lent isn’t celebrated as such, as it is in Roman Catholic, Anglican and other high church, liturgical communions; but that shouldn’t stop Christians in all churches from repenting and returning to the Lord periodically. In Baptist churches, for example, there is the revival tradition that calls church members back to the Lord. In other churches, it’s special dedication services. However it is done, in whatever form it takes, it’s always good for Christians to have occasion to repent and return to the Lord. But it’s not enough to confess and repent of sins, as important and essential as that is, but it’s equally important to recommit or rededicate oneself to the Lord. In fact the Bible warns about removing the bad without refilling the empty place with the good. “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first,” Matthew 12:43-45. So Lent shouldn’t be seen as merely a time of groveling over our sins or self-punishment, but also a time of happy, joyful and positive faith in our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. There is a time for sorrow and a time for joy, a time for confessing and a time for professing. As Ecclesiastes of the Old Testament says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven,” Ecclesiastes 3:1. Lent is a season for repenting of sins and returning to faith. Our day and age, even in the church, has gotten almost everything mixed up. When it should be repenting over sin, it’s celebrating. When it should be returning to faith in God, it’s focusing on self. But there’s no question that our churches and society could benefit from observing the true meaning of Lent each year. If pastors and church leaders would only explain it clearly and call people to repent and return to God it would greatly help. And if Christians would use it as a time of examining their own lives and confessing and repenting of real sins, not the superficial stuff that gets mentioned often in connection with Lent – then the season could have a life-changing effect each year. Are you observing Lent or its equivalent? Why not make it a habit each year around Easter, the weeks leading up to it, to return to the Lord in those areas you’ve gotten off the path? If there are any major sins that need to be confessed and repented, do so now. Here is a time already marked off on calendars as special, why not use it as such to return to the Lord? Don’t let the season of Lent be a lost opportunity for you. Use it to draw closer to God.


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