What Is Lent: Honoring the Sacrifice of Jesus
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. Matthew 4:1-2
What is Lent – A Time Set Aside
Just as we set aside time to spiritually prepare for Christmas Day, it makes sense to set aside time to prepare for the two most important days of the Christian year. Lent is a time that offers us an opportunity to come to terms with the human condition we may spend the rest of the year running from and it brings our need for a Savior to the forefront. Like Advent, Lent is a time to open the doors of our hearts a little wider and understand our Lord a little deeper, so that when Good Friday and eventually Easter comes, it is not just another day at church but an opportunity to receive the overflowing of graces God has to offer.
But unlike the childlike joy associated with the season of Advent, with its eager anticipation of the precious baby Jesus, Lent is an intensely penitential time as we examine our sinful natures and return to the God we have, through our own rebelliousness, hurt time and again. Lent is also an opportunity to contemplate what our Lord really did for us on the Cross – and it wasn’t pretty. But ultimately, the purpose of Lent does not stop at sadness and despair – it points us to the hope of the Resurrection and the day when every tear will be dried (Rev. 21:4).
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:33-49
Although the nature of suffering is not one that offers itself to easy explanations or pat answers, the answers we seek seem to make the most sense in light of the Cross. There is nothing in the world – no religion, philosophy, or material comfort – that offers such a powerful answer to life’s toughest questions as the two slabs of wood on which our Savior died. Although I was drawn to Christianity in search of joy, it’s the Cross that keeps me coming back day after day, year after year. It is this time of year, known as Lent, that I am reminded of what Jesus did for me.
When I look into the eyes of our suffering God, I’m in awe – suddenly the complexity of our Lord, the love of our Lord, the humanity of our Lord shows through. I realize God is not just some nebulous energy source or a grandfather sitting in the clouds – He is so much more. The Cross is where our faith stands when all other faiths fail. Christ’s sacrifice and his subsequent resurrection are the true “cruxes” of the Christian faith. Without one there would be no salvation, without the other, no hope. This is why Good Friday and the following Easter Sunday are the most important dates on the Christian calendar – even more so than Christmas.
When Does Lent Start This Year?
Lent in 2020: The Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday on February 26, 2020; if you are following the 40 days tradition, Lent ends on Holy Saturday, April 11, 2020.
However, in the Catholic tradition the “General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar,” was updated in 1969 to say: “Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive.” The Mass of the Lord’s Supper for Catholics is on Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, which is on April 7th, 2020. For those adhering to that tradition, Lent will end on Thursday, April 9th.
Read more in our When Does Lent Start and End article.
The History of Lent
So where does Lent come from, and how do we “do” Lent? The Lenten season developed as part of the historical Christian calendar and is typically celebrated by Catholics and some mainline Protestant churches that follow a liturgical calendar. Although its format has varied throughout the centuries and throughout different cultures, the basic concept remains the same: to open our hearts to God’s refining grace through prayer, confession, fasting, and almsgiving as we anticipate Holy Week. Lent traditionally lasts forty days, modeled after Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert, and ends on Good Friday. In the Western Church, Lent officially begins with a reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday (this year, falling on March 1st).
Practicing Lent Today
As with Advent, you can benefit from celebrating Lent even if your church does not formally do so. Here are some of the key elements of the Lenten season, along with some of the symbolism that comes with it. Many of these practices can be celebrated both individually and as a community:
- Purple: Like Advent, the official color for Lent is purple. Usually, churches that celebrate Lent choose the deepest, darkest shade of purple for this special season. They may also strip their churches bare of some of the usual decorations adorning the walls. Purple is the color of repentance for sins and also symbolizes the state of our souls outside the light of Christ. During this time, pray for those who do not know Christ and for those who have sinned gravely against Him.
- Confession: As mentioned above, Lent is a penitential season, even more so than Advent. The 40 days are set aside to really examine areas of recurring sin in our lives that prevent us from being conformed to God’s Will.
Keep in mind the idea here is not to be overly scrupulous or to deceive yourself into thinking you can earn heaven through your own goodness. The goal is to honestly examine your life in light of God’s Word and to make a commitment to change in any areas you have not submitted to the Lord. A good way to start an examination of conscience is by praying Psalm 139, verse 23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Then, hold up your life to the Ten Commandments. Confess, perhaps even to your pastor or an accountability partner (James 5:16), the ways you’ve sinned against God, thank Him for His forgiveness, and ask Him for the grace to change.
- Fasting and Prayer: Fasting is a practice that has really gone by the wayside in many Christian circles. Yet, if done correctly, it can be a powerful time of renewing your relationship with God. Fasting can be found in both the Old Testament and the New, with Moses (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9,18 ), Elijah (1 Kings 19:8), and our Lord (Matthew 4:2) all participating in 40-day fasts. Fasting is a way of denying ourselves the excesses of life so that we might be more attuned to the Lord’s voice. It is also a way of disciplining yourself, strengthening your “spiritual muscles” so to speak, so that when temptations arise in life, you are already used to saying “no” to your desires. And finally, fasting is also a way of participating, in a small way, in the sufferings of Christ and can be particularly powerful when accompanied by prayer and confession.
A word of caution: although fasting can be a wonderful spiritual exercise, it is also an easy one to abuse. Make sure that when you fast, you do not deprive yourself so much that you do harm to your body. Fasting should only be practiced by adults and mature teens. Also, take into account any medical conditions or nutritional needs when deciding what and how much to abstain from (I recommend consulting with a doctor and/or spiritual advisor before undertaking a serious fast). On the spiritual front, Jesus warns us to guard against pride while fasting (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).
- Meditating on Christ’s Sacrifice for Mankind: In addition to periodic fasting and prayer, our scriptural meditations typically turn to the salvation offered to us through Christ’s suffering. Read Old Testament Scriptures prophesying the suffering of Christ and the New Testament Gospel accounts.
- Charity/Almsgiving: A very important element of the Lenten season is becoming aware of not only the suffering and sacrifice of Christ but also to the suffering of others. Between now and Good Friday, choose one way you can increase your giving to those in need. It could be through extra financial offerings, donating goods you no longer need or use to charity, or increasing your personal time commitment to a ministry or cause close to your heart.
Lent is a time when Christians separate from the world; when we find out our faith is not just a feel-good, self-help religion but one that answers the deepest questions of life and eternity. Those who journey through the Lenten season will enter the Easter season with an increased appreciation for who God is and what He has done for us. And the joy of Resurrection, as well as the promises of eternity, will not be soon forgotten.
Bible Verses for Lent
Philippians 3:10-11 – “I want to know Christ, yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participate in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Joel 2:12-14 – “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.
Matthew 6:16-18 – “when you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites…but when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Join me in prayer for this season of Lent:
Thank you for the gift of this season. Thank you for knowing our hearts and our need for rhythms in our lives, and for drawing us into a deeper communion with you throughout the coming 40 days.
Lord, it can be disheartening to read on Ash Wednesday that all come from dust, and to dust all return (Ecclesiastes 3:20), yet we know that there is more to our stories. We know that you created man and woman from the dust at the very beginning of time (Genesis 2:7) and that you breathed life into them to transform them into living creatures. We know that you are in the business of resurrection– your very Son went to the cross to show us that no death is final and that ultimate transformation comes through your gift of salvation. Though we were made from dust, and our bodies will return to dust again, we can live in eternal glory with you through the blood of your Son.
May we remember the gift of salvation in this season…
…read more of our Prayer for Lent
This article is part of our larger Holy Week and Easter resource library centered around the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
First Sunday of Lent
Today we reflect on Matthew 4:3–4.
Hungry after forty days of fasting, Jesus is met by the tempter. What is offered, like the way offered to the first human beings, is a way of pride. Notice that every response Jesus makes to the tempter is a Scripture passage. Relying on God, letting God move and speak through our lives rather than our pride, we can respond to temptation in a different way—a way that brings life, not death.
—Excerpted from 2020: A Book of Grace-Filled Days by Amy Welborn
More Lenten Resources
Following Jesus into the Desert
What is a temptation, really? We make feeble attempts with ardent effort to overcome our temptations during Lent, but what is it we are really trying to overcome?
We are trying to overcome those things in our lives that hinder our relationships with God and prevent us from putting God first. So often we try to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong for us without any thought of God’s will for us. We naturally turn first to our desires for fun, to our inclinations for busyness, to food or alcohol for comfort, and to others for company.
God often comes behind these things in our thinking and often is not even considered as the source that can calm all of the chaos and desires in our lives. Instead, we put our human desires first, and we find ourselves in a state of restlessness, tiredness, or desolation. We feel lost as to the problem but also to the solution.
When it comes to deciding what is right or wrong for us, we can look to Jesus as our teacher. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert and leaned heavily on his Father during his time there. It is only with his Father’s help that Jesus was able to overcome the temptations presented to him by the devil. Jesus surely felt the desires of his humanity in the desert—hunger, pride, and power. How ardently he must have fought against his human desires! How weak he must have felt! Jesus understood, though, that his strength to overcome temptations came by turning to his Father and letting God help him decide what was right and wrong for him.
This Lent, we are invited to make that same bold turn toward God. And we do not make this turn alone. Both Jesus and the Spirit are here helping us as we turn to God to give us the strength and wisdom to overcome our temptations.
A Prayer for Your Teen’s Faith
By Kristine Brown
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1 John 3:1)
It’s every parent’s worry. How does my child continue trusting God when today’s culture teaches him to question his faith? I discussed this topic with my teen. His fresh perspective gave me renewed hope.
Our open conversation uncovered three practical things parents can do to help our teens keep the faith in an increasingly faithless world. Let’s learn together how to help our teens stay grounded in unshakeable faith, even in the midst of the madness.
It’s not about controlling what they see, but controlling what they see in you.
Our teens may not always listen to what we say, but they will absorb every detail of our actions. Are we displaying Christ-like character at home? Are we treating others with unconditional love and kindness? Do we rely on God’s Word in times of trouble?
God designed us to shine His light. Our kids will learn most about what it means to be a Christ-follower from watching our example.
Listen, even when you dread what they might say.
I want my kids to feel comfortable coming to me with their deepest thoughts and greatest fears, but I don’t always act like it. I need to create an atmosphere of trust – a safe place to share burdens.
When we teach them about God at home, His comforting peace will stay with them as they go about their daily lives. Let’s pray our home will be a place of praising God and receiving His peace. Each day, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to abide there. His presence will provide that safe place for them to speak and strength for us to listen.
Remind him often who God says he is.
God’s Word is alive, powerful, and true. Just hearing Scripture spoken can revive hurting hearts and refresh tired bodies. We would never intentionally deprive our kids of the benefits of hearing what God says about them. Yet so often we let busy schedules get in the way of proclaiming God’s goodness to our teens.
If my child has any question about how God sees him, this verse makes it clear. Sharing this promise with my teen will give him confidence in who he is – a child of the Creator of the universe.
Please pray with me:
Dear Father, thank you for our children. Thank you for loving them even more than we do, and for calling them out of darkness into your wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) They see a world of confusion. They hear messages condemning their beliefs. Yet Your Word is more powerful than any negativity that comes their way. Help them keep their faith in You, Lord. Give us wisdom to guide them as they grow into the mighty men and women you created them to be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.