What is Lent and Why Should I (Not) Observe It?

One Baptist friend of mine recently asked online: “Are you observing Lint this year?”

That represents about as much familiarity with the tradition as I had growing up in a so-called non-liturgical church.

The “Season of Lent” is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Though it has a somewhat debated and rather complicated history, it is undoubtedly ancient in origin. Over the long course of its development, significant changes have been made with regard to the days and specific fasts observed. But there has also been remarkable consistency in its function and focus. As one historian writes, “Like all Christian holy days and holidays, it has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same: self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. Early church father Irenaus of Lyons (~ 130-200 AD) wrote of such a season in the earliest days of the church, but back then it lasted only two or three days, not the 40 observed today.”Untitled-1

In the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great moved the start of Lent from the traditional 40th Sunday of the church calendar (or Quadragesima) to a Wednesday calculated 40 days out from Easter (not including Sundays, which are considered feast days). This came to be called “Ash Wednesday” since ash was smeared on the foreheads of observants in the sign of a cross – a token of the biblical symbolism of repentance (“sackcloth and ashes”) and human frailty (“dust you are, and to dust you shall return”).

Today is Ash Wednesday (2/10/16).  As you consider whether or not – and if so, how – you’re going to observe Lent through a fast of some sort, here are a few things to consider.

Why Fast for Lent?

  • Fasting can be an act of solidarity with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, which entails the entire people of God, not only throughout their long and storied history, but also around the globe. This includes many places where our fellow brothers and sisters suffer continually from a lack of sufficient, daily sustenance.
  • Fasting can be an act of solidarity with the sufferings of Christ, who fasted for us in the wilderness.
  • Fasting can be an act of anticipation and preparation for the bridegroom to return, which the resurrection we celebrate on Easter ensures (Lk.5:34).
  • Fasting can be an act of disciplining our bodies, as Jesus and the apostles exemplified for us (e.g., 1Cor.9:24-27) in the cultivation of holiness – including most especially the spiritual fruit of self-control (Gal.5:22-23).


Why Not Fast for Lent?

  • Fasting during Lent will improve my status before God. Correction: God’s love for us is eternally secure (Ephesians 1:3-6), and cannot be increased or decreased by any observances. Moreover, our righteousness in Christ is by faith alone, since it is the righteousness of God alone, not our own, which justifies us (Romans 3:10-4:12; Galatians 3). Whether we eat or drink, or refrain, we are no more righteous before God.
  • Fasting during Lent will improve my status before men. Correction: Any motive or act to justify myself before others (or myself) is actually a practical denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which announces to all that justification is by grace alone in Christ alone (see Galatians 2:3-5).
  • Fasting is the magic bullet that’ll finally secure elusive “self-control.” Correction: self-control is cultivated over a lifetime of following Jesus in both seasonally regulated and everyday deliberate acts of obedience.
  • Fasting during Lent is something it seems everyone else is doing. I don’t want to be left out. Correction (to quote the apostle Paul directly):

Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.


How Should I Think through Fasting?

Finally, think through the details of your fast: the why, when, from what, etc. See David Mathis’ Fasting for Beginners from Desiring God for some helpful tips.