I grew up going to a church that did not observe Lent, so when I heard people talking about what they gave up for Lent, I wasn’t sure what they were talking about. I really couldn’t figure out what the stuff you find in your belly button had to do with eating fish on Fridays and giving up chocolate for a month and a half. I think the reason my church did not participate in Lent was because they had seen some of the abuses and mistakes associated with this time of year. I’ve spoken to people who gave up ridiculous things for Lent, things that were not issues to begin with. I remember talking to one person who said that he was giving up smoking for Lent. I asked how long he had been smoking, and he said, never! Wow, what a sacrifice. I guess we like the easy way to religion. If I eat fish and quit something, well then, I must be OK in God’s book.
The deal is that Lent is actually a pretty cool idea. The concept began within two hundred years of the life of Jesus, as leaders in the early church realized the importance of preparing themselves for Easter. Early church father, Iraneus of Lyons (AD 130-200) wrote about such a season for church observance, but the period was three or four days. At the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the leaders of the church discussed a 40 day period of fasting and rememberance before Easter. The basic idea is that Good Friday and Easter are on the way. These holidays remind the Christian of the incredible sacrifice Jesus made and the wonderful victory that he has over sin, death, hell, and the grave. It is too easy for these celebrations to sneak up on us and blow by without even thinking much about it. So the early church thought it would be a good idea to set aside a period of time to refocus the church on Jesus, the cross, grace, and the resurrection. Fasting is a great spiritual discipline that can move a person deeper in their love for God and walk with Him. The point of any fast, whether of food, or chocolate, or cigarrettes, is to take the time and energy one would have used to eat or do these things, and focus that time in repentance, prayer, and worship.
I believe that for many followers of Jesus observing Lent, this 40 day period is exactly that, a time where they forsake something important in their lives in order to think about Jesus instead. That is a very good thing. Just do not make it a ritual. But for the rest of us who did not come from traditions that celebrate this season, maybe we ought to. I don’t think you have to eat fish on Fridays (if that was the case, my wife Heidi would be in trouble). But maybe there is a way that you can focus your attention on Jesus for the next40 days. You might find a way to fast from something, and spend the time you would have used in that activity to read one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and think about Jesus. I guarantee that if you do such an activity, your love for Jesus will grow, and the holidays of Good Friday and Easter will have more meaning.