What is Lent?


Here's a real conversation that I watched take place, about this time of year, 2 or 3 years ago:

Friend 1 (Canadian of Italian heritage): "What are you guys giving up for Lent this year?"
Friend 2 (Canadian of Dutch heritage): "OH, so now we're celebrating Catholic traditions? GREAT."

I thought it was a silly exchange, and that my Dutch-Canadian friend had no reason to feel threatened by Lent, but I didn't really know how to respond. The truth was, I hadn't even heard of Lent until fairly recently. I grew up sort of non-denominational Charismatic with missionary Baptist and Presbyterian influences (the simplest label would be Evangelical). In practice that meant I hadn't been exposed to the history of Christianity or any meaningful traditions that Christians have practiced for thousands of years. My history was, generally speaking, only about 300 years old. Which would be fine, except that humans tend to fear what they don't know or understand. As a result, most of us who have grown up in the shadow of the Evangelical church are afraid of 1700 years of Christian history. And that's why we end up having silly arguments.

But God's perfect love is meant to cast out fear, so how did we end up here, why did my Dutch-Canadian friend have such a visceral response, and how do we move on?

First off, Lent isn't something anyone needs to feel threatened by or afraid of. It's known origins trace to around 100 years after Jesus when an early Christian named Irenaeus wrote about other Christians who observed 2-3 days of fasting ahead of Easter. That tells us that Christians of various ethnic backgrounds and traditions have been observing a period of fasting ahead of the celebration of Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, for close to 2000 years. That's a tradition I think any of us can get behind.

And if tradition as a concept isn't of high value to you (it never used to be to me, I was new-school, baby!), then we only need to open our Bibles to see that tradition has always had value to those who value God. 

God: "Take 12 stones and put them beside that river."
Humans: "Why?"
God: "So that each time you walk past them and your children ask, 'Why are those rocks there?' you can tell them about me and how I saved you and how you crossed over this river and how I told you to pile up rocks here so that your children would always know about me. Yes, I want your children to know about me, and their children too. So do stuff like this."

Cultural groups build themselves upon traditions like that. Lent is just such a tradition, celebrated by Christians around the world for millennia. But because of the integration of church-and-state that existed in most of the Western world until recently, disagreements between Christians became disagreements between rulers and countries. And disagreement between countries involves war and propaganda and wiping out the memory of things the rulers don't like. All new traditions that grow up in nations experiencing disagreement are coloured by those things. Thus, most of us who grew up in countries with strong Evangelical traditions are missing out on practices that other Christians have participated in almost since the time of Christ.

Some 300 years after Jesus, just before all this church-and-state stuff, a selection of prominent Christian leaders met to discuss a whole host of issues they were trying to figure out. One of the things discussed at that meeting (called the Council of Nicea), was a 40-day period of fasting. The different groups of Christians observed it in different ways, some starting earlier than later, some fasting only on weekdays, but all choosing to seriously commit to a period of intentional reflection and self-deprivation in order to focus on God. Most groups didn't fast of all food but did abstain from meat and fish, and only took one meal per day.

As the centuries progressed, other councils took place and Lent was developed into a consistent 40-day period beginning on a Wednesday roughly 6 weeks before Easter. And so it has continued for over a thousand years until today. There is, quite seriously, nothing to fear.

Have you ever had surgery involving a general anaesthetic? If so, you'll know that you typically have to fast for 24 hours beforehand, to prepare your body for the surgery.

What is Lent? It is a period of fasting to commemorate the surgery that took place 2000 years ago, when our hearts of stone were removed forever, and replaced with hearts of flesh belonging to Jesus Christ. If you'd like to practice Lent this year, then prayerfully consider something to offer up to God over the next 40 days, and let your fasting pull your mind back to God as you prepare yourself to celebrate the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and everything he accomplished on our behalf.

You'll be among hundreds of millions of Christians doing so, all around the world, and untold billions who have done so over the last 2000 years.

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