Published on March 24th, 2011 | by Stephanie S. Smith
Lent: Empty Religion or Spiritual Season?
When I lived in Chicago, there was always a day in early spring when I would board the El train to go to work and slip into the midst of a crowd of people with ashes on their forehead. Sometimes, I would forget about Ash Wednesday until I saw it—and we all stood together silently on the train, somberly reminded by the ashes of our mortal state. I was always moved by how many people went to church that morning to observe the first day of the Lenten season.
The church’s observance of Lent varies according to denominations. Some churches rearrange each Sunday approaching Easter to reflect on this season, and other churches don’t mention it at all. Additionally, Scripture gives no direct command to observe Lent; it is a church tradition not a biblical mandate. It is instituted by man. So does Lent even matter? Why bother?
Lent: Remember and Anticipate
I believe the real reason for this season is our benefit as both individual believers and as a church body: as we intentionally observe the events of the life of Christ, we align ourselves with God’s unfolding story of redemption. Bobby Gross, author of Living the Christian Year (IVP Books, 2009), says it best, “But how does inhabiting the Story of God in liturgical time actually shape our lives? Here is the simple answer: by remembering and anticipating.”
Several days before he was crucified, Christ requested His disciples at the last supper to remember Him by taking the bread and wine (Luke 22:19), and to anticipate the future when we will eat and drink with Him face to face (Matt. 26:29). The forty-day period in Lent is intended to reflect the forty days Christ spent fasting in the desert, where He was tempted by Satan, before His crucifixion. Lent is a somber occasion, then, for us, for prayer, fasting, self-examination, and repentance. It is a time to re-focus on our need for salvation and Christ’s sacrifice for us, so that on Easter morning we can fully celebrate that “He is risen indeed!”
Lent in the Scriptures
In that case, the heart of Lent is very Scriptural: we are taught to devote ourselves to prayer (Col. 4:2), to good works and service (Titus 3:8), and to reading and reflecting on God’s Word (1 Tim. 4:13). And Christ does ask us to “remember” Him (Luke 22:19) and anticipate His final victory (Matt. 26:29). Lent is a human tradition, but that doesn’t mean it has to be empty religion. If you are going to give up chocolate for Lent because of a vague sense of obligation that you “should” (like I have done in the past, not understanding the purpose of Lent), don’t do it. But if you are willing to humble yoursel f before God, preparing your heart through intentional repentence for the glory of His resurrection on Easter, Lent can be a powerful time of returning and drawing near to God. The dividing line between empty religion and spiritual discipline is the motive of your heart.
Do you Observe Lent? How do you keep the focus on intentional repentance?