It may not be quite as familiar as it once was, but the question ‘what are you going to give up for Lent?’ still finds its place in the secular publications of the 21st century. A recent newspaper article suggested that for those who feel like they have been “over-doing it recently and need something to help you kick the habit - albeit temporarily - then giving something up for Lent might be just the answer you're looking for” The Scotsman, Feb 2021
We may not quite echo the words from the Scotsman but Christians are still left wondering whether the forty days of Lent should be embraced as a helpful spiritual discipline in the quest for holiness or rejected as an unnecessary and unhelpful religious feast. Observation of Lent has certainly been a feature of the Christians landscape for centuries. There is evidence that it started as a time to prepare new converts for baptism; and some say that it was later mentioned in the 20 practical canons that emerged from the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. Others would say that the history of Lent is impossible to reconstruct. But however it emerged, it has long been a time open to confusion and misunderstanding.
When dealing with the misconceptions of fasting, Calvin wrote of the ‘Seeds of superstition’ that were sown which ‘furnished the occasion of the tyranny which afterward arose.’ He continued:
At that time the superstitious observance of Lent has prevailed everywhere, because the common people thought that in it they were doing some exceptional service to God, and the pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ.
But does superstition and confusion mean that the season of Lent should be ignored? The forty days clearly alludes to the time Jesus was in the wilderness (eg Matthew 4:2), which itself reminds us of the many other significant sets of forty days which appear at regular intervals through the Bible: in judgement (the flood - Genesis 7:4, 12, 17), death (the time required for embalming - Genesis 50:3), rebellion, (yet with gracious provision - Exodus 16:35; Numbers 14:34); in the presence of God (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9) and the power of God (Elijah’s journey to Horeb - 1 Kings 19:8). There is wonderful truth in knowing that all of this finds its fulfilment and true understanding in Jesus. It is not entirely wrong to remember what rich theological truths are packed into an association with forty days.
And yet Lent is not prescribed in the New Testament. Neither is Easter, or Christmas. Each may be helpful if they enable us to grow in true holiness of character; if through time spent in the word and in prayer we are equipped as the people of God and grow to be more like Jesus – but when a helpful suggestion becomes a religious duty, we enter more dangerous territory. The apostle Paul reminds us not to let anyone judge us ‘by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a new Moon celebration or a Sabbath day’ (Colossians 2:16). These are merely a ‘shadow,’ not the reality which is found in Christ (Colossians 2:17). They may had an ‘appearance of wisdom with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’ (Colossians 2:23).
Celebrations are not forbidden in scripture, but neither are they required. Our decisions as to what we do or don’t do with Lent must first and foremost be driven by a concern not to cause others to stumble and to ensure that our brothers and sisters in Christ are built up and encouraged - and secondly by what might serve to make us more like Jesus.
Back in 1960 Christianity Today observed that “Lent constitutes both a challenge and an embarrassment to Protestantism. Each year as the season approached it brings with it the temptation to equivocate. We do not know where we stand because out feet seem to be stuck in both camps.’
Perhaps though, there are no camps. Whatever way in which we choose to use the forty days that run from Ash Wednesday to Easter, we need to remember that such observation (and such days) are not prescribed or required for the authentic Christian. They might be a help for some or a hindrance for others, depending on whether our decisions are made for the growth of others and the glory of God, or for some form of ‘self-imposed worship’ that will be powerless to produce what we desire.
If we are ‘in Christ’ then we have died to the basic principles of this world, including the requirement for certain religious practices. Wisdom and knowledge are not to be found in a requirement to do anything with Lent, but in Christ (Colossians 2:3) - and if a block of forty days serves to help us to know him better, then it would be time well spent.