Growing up I associated the word ‘Lent’ with one thing – my Catholic friends at school who said they would give up chocolate for the occasion. These were also the friends who said their families ate fish on Good Friday and I was thankful my family didn’t adhere to that idea because I didn’t like fish.
I can’t say that I have much of a memory of Lent being spoken about or practised in the Anglican churches I grew up in. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, just that perhaps it wasn’t as common in my little corner of the world.
As an adult, I have decided to investigate Lent for myself, to try and understand its origins and purpose. How much of it is ritual and symbolism and how much of it is actually something that is practised to draw closer to God?
Lent can be whatever you’d like it to be, provided you’re observing it for the right reasons.
So from my research, this is what I understand Lent to be: Lent is a period of fasting for 40 days in the lead up to Easter. It is reminiscent of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting before being tempted by the devil, as written in the book of Luke in the Bible. It is a manmade custom in remembrance of this biblical event.
Personally, I can often be afraid of words like custom, symbolism and ritual, because I know that if we get too caught up in them we are in danger of becoming like the Pharisees and losing sight of Jesus and his sacrifice. I know that putting other things before God is a slippery slope to looking beyond God and trying to rely on works. My solution to this dilemma is to run the opposite way. Be it repetition, symbolism, ritual, tradition or some other representation, I’m going to avoid it. However, if I am wanting to focus my investigation of Lent on Jesus, I really can’t ignore verses and passages in the Bible where Jesus instructs his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) in reference to communion and his body and blood.
Jesus says this to his disciples as a way for them to remember his sacrifice on the cross. The act of participating in communion is a time of thought-provoking remembrance whereby we are encouraged to reflect on Jesus’ death and the sacrifice he made for his people, because of his love for them.
While not a sacrament like communion is, Lent can be observed as a way of sombre remembrance in the lead up to Easter. Realistically, Lent can be whatever you’d like it to be, provided you’re observing it for the right reasons.
It’s not going to save me from my sins; it’s not offering me a spot in heaven.
Giving up something for 40 days seems to be the most common form of observation, whether that be something like chocolate or the more modern choice of social media, Netflix, etc. Depending on what you’re willing to give up, will determine how much of a sacrifice it really is for you.
Jesus fasted from food for 40 days, but I am not going to recommend that or try it myself because I am not Jesus and it would not be a healthy or safe choice. It would be pretty easy here to say I will commit to giving up eating fish for 40 days and hope that you’ll remember my thoughts about fish from earlier in this article. I could give up coffee as I drink it twice a day, but I’m not sure that would be wise for me as a mother of a 9-month-old who still wakes two or three times per night. Thinking through my options, social media would actually be a good choice for me because I do rely on it too much and I know that I use it when I could instead be doing other, more productive or creative things.
So now that I’ve decided what to give up, I think the next logical thing to do would be to work out what to replace it with. It seems pretty obvious now that I think about it – reading the Bible and praying!
If I set out to focus on removing something from my life and call it Lent, then I’m pretty sure I would end up doing exactly what I fear – participating in a ritual for the sake of a ritual. It’s not going to save me from my sins; it’s not offering me a spot in heaven. The ritual of Lent did not die on the cross for me. But Jesus did and so if I’m going to observe Lent, then I am going to spend more time observing Jesus (see what I did there?).
As Jesus himself made clear, remembrance and tradition are helpful reminders but they are no more than that. Participating in Lent won’t save me, but it is a helpful and penitent reminder of the one who does.
Lucy Marrett is an author, coffee drinker, wife, mum and Christian.
This article is part of a series by different writers about how they plan to observe Lent this year. Stay tuned for more of these stories in coming weeks. We pray that they might enrich your journey towards Easter.