Traditionally, the Lenten season is the entire forty-day period during which the church prepares for the celebration of Easter. When it first emerged in church history, Lent served primarily as a time of intense instruction, fasting, and prayer for converts to the Christian faith in the days leading up to their baptism. The practice of observing forty-days probably arose in Alexandria, Egypt in the third century as an imitation of fasts by Moses and Elijah as well as Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness following his baptism, which was celebrated on Epiphany (January 6) by Christians in the eastern Roman empire. Following the council of Nicea (325 A.D.), the forty days of Lent were shifted to the period leading up to Easter, which became the annual day for administering baptisms in many churches. This pre-Easter observance of Lent quickly became the universal Christian practice. Eventually Lent became a discipline observed by the whole church and not simply new converts.
Lent is a season of reflection and self-examination, of self-denial and repentance, of reconciliation and spiritual growth as we meditate on the life of Jesus and his call for us to follow him as his disciples. During Lent, almost all churches that follow the annual church calendar hear readings and sermons from the gospels, which tell us of Christ’s humiliation and suffering as he sacrificed himself to serve a fallen and broken world even to the point of death on a cross. In those gospel readings, we also hear Jesus’ summons to take up our own cross and follow the path of suffering service for the sake of God’s kingdom that he first followed on our behalf as the Suffering Servant-King.
For Jesus, this path led ultimately to his crucifixion for the sins of the world, and thus Lent culminates in Good Friday when we recount and reflect on the event of Jesus’ death on the cross. The color purple symbolizes Jesus’ royalty (seen in the purple robe he wore as he was mocked by Roman soldiers), and the spirit of penitence that should characterize our lives as followers of this king.
While this all might sound depressing and negative, the purpose of Lent is actually quite positive and liberating. Lent can viewed as a spiritual “spring cleaning”: a time to let Jesus inspect our lives and take a spiritual inventory. It is a time to focus on cleaning out the sinful attitudes and habits that hinder us from following Jesus and establishing new habits and practices that enable us to experiencing the abundant life that we can find in loving and serving God. We should, of course, repent of our sins and seek spiritual growth at all times, not just during this season. Observing Lent simply provides a regular and corporate structure for a sort of annual retreat that gives a special focus to examination and repentance in our lives as individuals and as a church body.
As we strive to heed Jesus’ call during Lent, we must remember that our motivation and strength to follow the Lord is the hope of Easter. Lent’s journey ends not at the cross on Good Friday but at the empty tomb on Easter. We worship the risen and reigning Lord Jesus, and we now look back on Jesus’ death not merely as a matter for sorrow but even more as the victory of Jesus our Champion over the brokenness of the world. And because we are united by the Holy Spirit to the resurrected Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, we can face our own sins and weaknesses with faith and hope. In Jesus, we know that we are forgiven and accepted by God, and we have hope for real healing and transformation in our lives.
For more information about the season of Lent and for resources to assist you in worship and spiritual growth during this season, see the Lent page under the Liturgical Calendar tab at the top of this page.