Should Lent Matter? - Gordon Conwell

Should Lent Matter?

Wendy Murray

The significance of the season of Lent has at times confounded those outside Catholicism since (it is thought) this holy season arises from that tradition. Yet, it is worth considering that this season is one that Christians of all traditions might observe with spiritual benefit. It renders the opportunity for Christian believers to quell the rhythms of everyday life and turn their hearts toward the higher and deeper things, “where Christ is,” as Paul says it.[1] It is the time when we anticipate and reflect upon the holiest period on the Christian calendar—the final days of our Lord’s earthly life and his death—a moment that proved a hinge point in human history. It is the season when we, as members of a flailing human race, can reflect upon the contradiction that we have been both the instrument of Jesus’ suffering and the beneficiary of the rescue his suffering realized.

The word “Lent” comes from the Middle English word lente, meaning “springtime,” descended from the Old English lencten, referring to the earth’s pivot toward the brightening days of spring. The concept itself is not mentioned in the Bible, though it is worth noting that the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) affirmed a 40-day “Lenten” season of fasting in anticipation of Holy Week for believers who were preparing for baptism. This seasonal tradition, in time, would expand to encompass all believers.[2]

The period of approximately six weeks (mimicking Christ’s 40 days in the desert) is initiated with a service of penance known as “Ash Wednesday,” arising from a tradition in the early Church when penitents would sprinkle themselves with ashes and sometimes don sackcloth as a symbolic (and public) gesture of personal penance and a recognition of the fleeting nature of our mortal life. The subsequent weeks culminating in Holy Week were marked by believers adopting various forms of self-denial and spiritual discipline. Throughout the ages in the Christian tradition, the spiritual power and benefits of certain types of mortifications have been upheld and extolled. It seems that many believers and spiritual seekers inherently hanker for a way back to inner healing and vitality from the disorder, indulgences and moral collapse of our chaotic world. They embrace the renunciation of toxic indulgences in deference to surrendering to a higher order and putting trust in something high, deep, wide, mysterious and hopeful as modeled in the life of Jesus.

The practice of renunciations associated with Lent (such as certain types of fasting or abstinence) opens the way for God to be active and faithful in small and practical ways. Such practices defer sovereignty over our lives to His sovereignty over our lives—as Jesus did when He prayed “not my will, but Yours.” It could be said that Lenten observation creates our own solitary path following the Lord on his path that led to Gethsemane and then to Calvary.

Participating in the Lenten season requires something of us. But the reward is a holy reordering of one’s interior life under the light of eternal promise.

Explore additional Lenten resources.

[1] Colossians 3:1-2
[2] For a more detailed history of the evolution of Lent see the Christianity Today article by Ted Olsen.

Wendy Murray (MATS ’85) is associate director of accreditation and communications. She has published several books including biographies of St Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi. She is currently working on a new title, The Franciscan Way, due out next year with Paraclete Press.