This Wednesday, March 2, hundreds of millions of Christians will begin observing Lent. The vast majority of those people will be Catholics, or Anglicans. I was raised thinking Lent was for Catholics and that it was one more ritual that separates Catholics from “real Christians.”
I’ve had to repent of both notions – that all Catholics weren’t real Christians and that Lent was a ritual for them and not for Protestants. “But the command to celebrate Lent’s not in the Bible,” I’ve heard many Protestants say. True, but neither is the celebration of Christmas, or Easter. So what is Lent, how did it come about and should Protestants celebrate it?
Lent is a period of forty days before Easter, which is used for reflection, fasting, prayer and repentance. The tradition of 40 days comes from the 40 days Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert when tempted by the Devil.
Celebrating Lent was a tradition observed long before there actually was a Catholic Church who then made it official and defined how they believed it should be celebrated. You won’t find the ideas of celebrating Ash Wednesday, or giving up meat and other things Protestants consider ridiculous, in the Bible either which makes it easier for us to brush Lent off. But whether you chose to observe Lent formally, or simply as another spiritual discipline that draws you closer to God, at least consider it.
Lent is considered a period of personal, spiritual preparation for Easter. It’s a time to give up what is distracting us and focusing on God. It’s also a time of repentance. Lent, rightly practiced focuses our hearts and minds on Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross for our sins. Many use this time to daily think deeply about their own sin and meditate on how they might live differently for God. They read prophesies in the Old Testament about the Messiah and the New Testament stories of Jesus, the Last Supper, his trial, crucifixion and resurrection.
Some cautions when observing Lent
Ash Wednesday is often the start of Lent with some people literally putting ash on their foreheads presumably to let others know they are celebrating Lent. I believe this violates Jesus commands in Matthew 6 to not show off spiritually;
“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.” Matthew 6:17-18
You are encouraged to fast. The giving up of something we enjoy does nothing to add to our salvation. But I find when I fast anytime I find myself thinking about the thing I’ve chosen to give up, I try to remember the purpose for my self denial- Christ. However, any ritual has the potential to become legalistic, rather than heartfelt. Therefore, if you choose to observe Lent, be serious about it. Christians are justified by faith alone, not religious practices. This is why I don’t observe Lent every year, or when I do, do I observe it the same way. But I’d encourage you to not reject the idea of a period of personal, spiritual preparation for Easter just because it feels “Catholic,” or legalistic. It should be neither. This is between you and Jesus and no one else.
However, having said that, as mature Christians and because Lent is not understand by many Protestants I do encourage you to pass on these ideas to your family and friends who may not have ever considered Lent to be appropriate or valuable for followers of Jesus. It is!