I walked through my first Lent in 2004. I had been raised and later ministered in a church that didn’t observe Lent. This was all new to me.
On Ash Wednesday, I entered a darkened worship space. The Rector (Senior Pastor) was seated up front. He was wearing all black. Everyone was silently praying. We stayed like that for what seemed like an hour (it was actually only about five minutes). The pastor stood up and announced that Lent had begun. He announced that the church was calling us to the annual season of repentance. He reminded us that repentance is only possible because of God’s grace.
Then, after our prayers and Scripture readings, we lined up to receive the imposition of ashes. I watched as the pastor first knelt to receive the ashes himself, symbolizing the universal need for repentance. One by one each of us in the congregation knelt, receiving dark ashes pressed onto each forehead in the shape of a cross.
As we continued through the season of Lent, the next 40 days plus Sundays, we read of John the Baptist, the prophecies of Isaiah, the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, and of the passion. I was instructed to give something up for Lent, and to fast on Fridays.
As a congregation, together with Christians all around the world, and like Christians who have gone before us, we walked through Lent and then Holy Week together.
And when Easter Day came that year, my experience of the celebration of the Resurrection of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ was changed forever.
While this was all new to me, it is not new at all for most Christians in history or in the world today.
What Is Lent?
Lent began in the early church as a period in which catechumens (people being taught the Christian faith in preparation for their baptism) fasted and prepared for their baptism on the night before Easter morning.
As this practice developed everyone in the congregation began fasting and repenting together, because humility and repentance should be a part of every Christian’s life. Across the Christian world, this practice spread. Eventually it was associated with the 40-day fast of Jesus in the wilderness. This became an important part of the Church Year.
Why Observe Lent?
The Church Year is a cycle of fasts and feasts, celebrations and practices that walk a congregation through the life of Christ together. This allows for us to not just hear Scripture read about Jesus, but to actually practice disciplines that tap into all of our senses, and every part of our lives. And the beauty of these historic practices is that we do them together. We are being shaped into Christ’s image as a community.
And the Church Year also enables us to understand and draw from the experience of believers who have gone before us. In my first Lent, I read sermons written about Lent by Chrysostom. I was amazed about how his experience of fasting and repenting so matched my own. I felt like he could have written the same things in our own day and it would have been just as relevant.
This Church Year begins in Advent (four weeks before Christmas) and that prepares us for Christmas, which then flows into Epiphany. Lent is our preparation for Easter, which then flows into Pentecost. You see, both of the two major Christian feasts (Christmas and Easter), have a season of preparation before them.
Sadly, many churches have dropped off the preparation seasons completely. Christmas is celebrated before it starts, and Advent is skipped. Lent is often ignored, and so Easter just arrives one day. There isn’t a sense of humbling and preparing, and praying to get ready for these wonderful days.
So restoring the practice of Lent prepares us better for Easter, it reminds us to repent, and it reconnects us with the experiences of fellow Christians around the world and in our past.
How to Observe Lent?
The first and fundamental way to observe Lent is to meditate on God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. The place to start is not the fast, but the feast.
The point of fasting, Jesus said, was the future feast. God isn’t testing our willpower or lording our failures over us in Lent. Instead, he is helping us become opened up to an even greater understanding of his love and grace so that we can see our true sicknesses and be healed. And all of this is in preparing for the final great feast, when heaven comes to earth and all fasting ends. The bridegroom has returned.
So as you observe Lent, and lead your church and family to observe it, don’t start with an emphasis on willpower, self-denial or humiliation. Start with God’s love and grace. It would be terrifying to repent before a graceless god. But it can become a joy to repent before our gracious Lord.
Second, find the date of Ash Wednesday and hold a worship service that day. This service is usually very short, simple and quiet. Often there is no music. The goal is to allow space for us to be in the presence of God with an intention to begin a time of honesty with him. The Ash Wednesday service can be found online in the Book of Common Prayer.
On a practical note, before you impose the ashes, add some oil to them so they stick. The ashes are often made from burning the dried palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
Third, encourage the congregation to give something up, and give something away during Lent. This is a simple communal discipline that allows us to observe our own reaction to living without something good for a few weeks. It is important that we not give up something that is already bad for us. That isn’t a fast, it’s a diet. A fast is giving up something good in order to focus our attention on God. Giving away challenges us to give to others. As Isaiah wrote, the fast that God desires is to reach out and lift burdens off of others.
Lenten disciplines are observed every day from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week except Sundays. Keep in mind that in the historic church calendar, Sundays are always feast days. You don’t ever fast on a Sunday, because it is the day of the Lord’s resurrection. Sometimes people think that they can be extra repentant, or super spiritual, by fasting also on Sundays. Remind your congregation that Sunday is a festival day, and that powering through it with a super fast is more likely to distract us from true repentance than to point us to it. It becomes more about my willpower and less about God’s grace.
Fourth, encourage people to fast on Fridays. Fasting does not always mean abstaining completely from all food. Going back to the days of the early church, this fast was often abstaining from all meat, or a fast from one meal of the day. There is not one correct way to fast. But it may help to give your congregation some guidelines if this is all new. And, of course, keep in mind that the young and old, and those with health conditions should be encouraged to fast only in ways that do not compromise their health. God made the fast for man, not man for the fast.
Fifth, encourage the reading of Scripture and of the Church Fathers and Mothers during Lent. This is a great way to get back into reading the Bible, and to encourage each other with words from our spiritual forebears.
Finally, keep preaching grace. Repentance, forgiveness, restoration and honesty with God and each other never come through guilt or shame. John the Baptist cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus came to save, not to condemn. While it is important to us to always confess our sins, humble ourselves and recognize our mortality, we do this in order to receive a greater understanding of God’s love. It is all about the feast, not the fast. Keep pointing to Good Friday and Easter!
After Easter, ask folks to testify about how their experience of Lent prepared them for the celebration of Easter Day.
Is Lent Legalism or Rote Ritual?
Sometimes people feel that observing Lent is legalistic, or rote.
My experience has been that anything can be legalistic or become rote. I grew up in a very free flowing, non-denominational church. Yet there were certain praise songs, or local practices and emphasis that became very common and rote. Legalism and rote-ness are not inherently bound up in any tradition. They come from within our own hearts.
The historic practices of the church, including Lent, can be presented legalistically. They can become rote. And that is what the Reformers were often pointing out. Yet most of the reforming churches didn’t eliminate these practices. It was only later that they were lost to a part of the reforming churches. Most Christians in the world today still observe them.
Today, we can restore these ancient practices in a way that also restores their original purpose and power. Lent was never intended to be a time of humiliation, works-righteousness, or earning forgiveness from a stingy god.
Instead, it was created as a time to find the true refreshment of repentance, or to renew that sense of total honesty with God. It was a time for those who had harmed others to confess that, and then to seek to make things right. It was a time for the whole people of God to slow down, to humble ourselves and to listen more closely for God’s still, small voice.
And it was intended to be a time when each individual repentant Christian was surrounded by a repentant congregation, which was surrounded by a world of repentant Christians.
My Journey in Lent
I have now observed Lent 14 times. I have failed in my fasting, giving or disciplines every time, to a greater or lesser degree each year. I sometimes practiced the disciplines as if I were proving to God that I was worthy of his love. Here and there I overdid it, and a few times I pretty much skipped it. But none of this I did alone. I had my brothers and sisters around me. I had the saints before me. I had the fellowship of believers around the world. And I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was never alone.
I can say that my experience of intentionally walking through Lent has given me an annual spiritual check-up. It has given me a time when I have been able to ask God to show me my sins and flaws. Every year he has shown me more of my true self, in one way or another. And after about 10 years of Lent, I felt that I finally began to see how much God was showing me his total love and grace. I am now able to look forward to Lent each year, rather than dread it as my false notions of God caused me to do in the past. I don’t believe those false notions would have fallen away, for me, without this ancient practice. God used it greatly in my own life.
And so I commend the season of Lent to you and your congregation. Take the journey and see how the Lord reveals his grace once again.
Greg GoebelGreg Goebel is the founder of Anglican Pastor and serves as editor and one of the writers. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.