Lent is a sea­son of repen­tance and prepa­ra­tion. In many church­es, it is a time when those who will be bap­tized pre­pare for their new life with God. It’s a time when those who have been estranged from the church can be rec­on­ciled to the body of believ­ers. It’s also a time for all of us to think about the ways we have drift­ed from the faith. The com­mon theme unit­ing these three func­tions of Lent is that they all involve a turn­ing toward God with inten­tion and reflec­tion on the past. We hope that as Chris­tians mature and grow they will become more and more like Christ. But the church in its wis­dom assumes that we will fail, even after our bap­tism. The church pre­sumes that life is long and that zeal fades, not just for some of us but for all of us. So it has includ­ed with­in its life a sea­son in which all of us can recap­ture our love for God and his king­dom and cast off those things that so eas­i­ly entan­gle us.

Today Lent is known as the forty days of fast­ing in prepa­ra­tion for East­er. In the West, Lent begins on Ash Wednes­day and con­cludes on Holy Sat­ur­day, the day before East­er. Exact­ly how we end­ed up with this exact peri­od of time is some­thing of a mys­tery. In the first few cen­turies of the church’s life, there was a one- or two-day fast in prepa­ra­tion for East­er. Some schol­ars think that this fast was even­tu­al­ly extend­ed to what we now call Holy Week. We went from a few days to a week-long prepa­ra­tion. One week grew to three weeks, and final­ly forty days. Dur­ing these forty days bap­tismal can­di­dates were pre­pared to be received into the church on Easter.

As best as we can tell, how­ev­er, the fasts relat­ed to Holy Week devel­oped apart from what is now called Lent. It seems there was a peri­od of fast­ing that pre­ced­ed bap­tism even when the bap­tism was not con­nect­ed with East­er. Those fasts var­ied in length, but there is some evi­dence that the forty-day pre-bap­tismal fast was pop­u­lar in Alexandria.

What­ev­er its pre­cise devel­op­ment, it’s clear that the ear­ly Chris­tians thought that bap­tism was seri­ous and required prepa­ra­tion. I think this is wise. Becom­ing a Chris­t­ian is no small mat­ter. To tran­si­tion from believ­ing that you live in a world where death is the end to one in which an Almighty God calls dead things to life is much more sig­nif­i­cant than choos­ing what to have for break­fast. We should have space to reflect on the full sig­nif­i­cance of the change.

After the coun­cil of Nicaea set a par­tic­u­lar date for the cel­e­bra­tion of East­er, many through­out the church began to see the feast of the Res­ur­rec­tion as the best time to bring peo­ple into the church. It was also a fit­ting time to bring back into the church those who had strayed away. The link between Lent and East­er, then, was a col­li­sion of dif­fer­ent fac­tors. The sea­son of fast­ing linked to bap­tism and the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of those estranged from the church were con­nect­ed to the fast­ing in prepa­ra­tion for East­er, includ­ing Holy Week.

So Lent came to be about three things: the prepa­ra­tion of new con­verts for bap­tism, the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of those estranged from the church, and a gen­er­al call for the whole church to repent and renew its com­mit­ment to Jesus.

In those ear­ly cen­turies, the prac­tice var­ied. In the East the Lenten fast last­ed sev­en weeks, but Sat­ur­days and Sun­days weren’t count­ed in the total, so there were actu­al­ly only thir­ty-six fast days. In the West, the fast was only six weeks, but they end­ed up with thir­ty-six days, too, because only Sun­days were not count­ed. West­ern Chris­tians even­tu­al­ly added the four days from Ash Wednes­day to the first Sun­day of Lent to give us the num­ber forty. Today in most West­ern church­es the days of Lent are cal­cu­lat­ed by count­ing forty days from Ash Wednes­day through the end of Holy Week, exclud­ing Sundays.

Fast­ing prac­tices also var­ied. In some con­texts par­tic­u­lar foods were removed from the diet dur­ing Lent; in oth­er places the num­ber of meals was reduced. This may seem like the kind of creep­ing legal­ism that would send Protes­tants run­ning for the hills. But hold on.

All this vari­a­tion is actu­al­ly rather free­ing. There was nev­er a sin­gle way of doing Lent giv­en to us from on high that we must fol­low in order to be right with God. The his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of Lent is like our spir­i­tu­al lives. The church stum­bled around try­ing dif­fer­ent things and doing its best to dis­cern togeth­er the best ways to use this peri­od of time to bring us clos­er to God. We should not see the sea­son of Lent as a series of rules but as a gift of the col­lect­ed wis­dom of the church uni­ver­sal. It is one of many tools of dis­ci­ple­ship point­ing us toward a clos­er walk with Jesus. This does not mean that we should treat Lent as a spir­i­tu­al buffer to choose this or that. It means that we should take the wis­dom that the church offers us as wis­dom but not legalism. 

There may be some ben­e­fits to adopt­ing prac­tices that may not ini­tial­ly make sense to us because Chris­tians before us have strug­gled, dis­cerned, and prayed their way into the prac­tices that are now our her­itage. I was not bap­tized at the end of Lent. I was raised in the Black Bap­tist church, where we got bap­tized when we heard the gospel and believed. But Lent does hold a par­tic­u­lar place in my heart. The sea­son of Lent was my first encounter with litur­gi­cal spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. It added a new ele­ment to my spir­i­tu­al life.

My first Lent was a pil­grim­age. I nev­er left the city I resided in dur­ing that time, but I did go on a jour­ney. At a time when I felt adrift spir­i­tu­al­ly, Lent helped me be aware of the near­ness of God. These out­ward prac­tices took me on an inward jour­ney fur­ther into the aware­ness of God.

Adapt­ed from We Must Repent: An Intro­duc­tion to Lent,” from Lent: The Sea­son of Repen­tance and Renew­al by Esau McCaul­ley. Pub­lished 2022 by IVP

Pho­to by Daniele Coluc­ci on Unsplash

Text First Published November 2022 · Last Featured on Renovare.org February 2023

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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