To Lent or Not to Lent

What should one do to observe the ancient season of the Church? Should they ditch “sweets and meats” during Lent?  Should they don sackcloth and sit in ashes? Is Lent more about losing something or gaining something? Parishioners will be taking cues from preachers on the purpose and value of observing the season of Lent.

For Lutherans, the forty-day Lenten season is an important one. But behind the question of what to do during Lent lies more foundational questions: What is Lent? Do the Scriptures mention it? Why do we observe it?

Though the Scriptures do not specifically mention Lent, it has a longstanding tradition in the Church closely derived from the contents of Scripture. As Christ prepared for Good Friday and the Resurrection, so too the Church tethered to the life of Christ through the liturgical calendar follows her Lord into sin’s death and resurrection life. The biblical narrative moves the Church to emulate and, therefore, externalize the narrative of her Savior’s journey to Jerusalem to accomplish redemption where something is lost (sin) and something is gained (resurrection life). Lent simply engages the Church and each Christian in the rhythm and patterns of sanctification: Death to sin and the pursuit of holiness. Lent fosters an intensive time for the baptized to live as the baptized according to the pattern of Romans 6:1-7.

Lent began very simply as a time of preparation for Easter or, synonymously, resurrection life. This is the driving force behind Lent: The Christian practicing the future of resurrection life in the here and now. This was a legitimate pursuit because Holy Baptism brought resurrection to the human spirit in this life with the resurrection of the body in the life to come.

This is the driving force behind Lent: The Christian practicing the future of resurrection life in the here and now.

From the earliest times it was customary for Christians in most places to fast before Easter (known then as “the Paschal Feast”). It was a fasting before the feasting, a celibacy before the celebration. At first this was a two-day fast (Friday and Saturday). As time passed, this fast was extended. The earliest reference to a forty day fast leading up to Easter is the Second Festal letter of Athanasius in 330 AD, though the practice may be traced to the late 200’s. Indeed, it stands as an ancient observance and a fine opportunity, in step with the global Church, to preach the virtues of observing Lent.

For our early Christian forbearers, Lent had two major emphases. First, it was a time of repentance and denial of self that inhibited baptismal, that is to say, resurrection life. All Christians were to examine their lives according to the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ summation of the Law in Mark 12:30-31 and repent accordingly, considering what it cost their Savior to redeem them, but also to strive to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). Second, it was a time of instruction for catechumens, that is, those who desired the resurrection of their spirits in Holy Baptism. During Lent they learned the Christian faith by studying the Apostles’ Creed. Upon examination they were baptized and received the Lord’s Supper in the joyous resurrection service of Easter. This is fitting given the meaning and significance of baptism: The old self being buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life (Romans 6:3-5).

At the time of the Reformation, some Christian radicals wanted to eliminate Lent since Scripture did not explicitly command it. Luther, however, urged it be kept, not out of any necessity (one does not need to observe Lent to be either saved or sanctified) but because he saw Lent as an opportunity for the strengthening of faith and distinctive proclamation of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. “Lent, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week shall be retained,” wrote Luther, “not to force anyone to fast, but to preserve the Passion history and the Gospels appointed for that season” (Luther’s Works, 53:90). Here Luther, ever conservative, reminds us Lent should be preserved in part because it reminds Christians of the Passion of Jesus and encourages them to meditate and act upon it. However, no one should be forced to participate. It should be voluntary. To be sure, this is in keeping with the teachings of Scripture (2 Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 2:4; 5:1, 13). In other words, you do not have to come to mid-week Lenten Services or observe Lenten devotions at home. But, at the same time our fathers in the Church in the Reformation tradition, our pastors and elders, recognized that the keeping of Lent is for our greater spiritual good because it promotes striving for resurrection life in the here and now by living as the baptized, repenting of sin and embracing the way of sanctification.

Luther, ever conservative, reminds us Lent should be preserved in part because it reminds Christians of the Passion of Jesus and encourages them to meditate and act upon it.

Therefore, Lent recalls the time Christ spent, shortly before beginning his public ministry, overcoming temptation (on our behalf!) in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). It is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, “lencten” (= lengthen), meaning “spring” or the time of the lengthening of the days. Lent is one of the six seasons of the Christian calendar and is a forty-day period (representing the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness) beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending with the celebration of the Easter Vigil on Easter morning. The period is actually 46 days, but since Sundays are feast days, they are never included in the count. These six Sundays, then, are not referred to as Sundays of Lent, but Sundays in Lent, because on these days of celebrating our Lord’s resurrection fasting should not apply, though we respect the season by omitting the “Alleluias” and the Gloria.

Preachers should feel at liberty to promote its disciplines and hallmark it within the calendar as a time intended to be a period of preparation and penitence marked by voluntary fasting, sobriety, meditation, and almsgiving. The season prompts us to remember the forgiveness of our sins and failures in temptation in lieu of Christ’s availing passion, victorious death, His resurrection, and how much God loves us. In other words, Lent preaches Law and Gospel. It accentuates the possibility of living as regenerate humanity amid our fallen humanity.

Lutherans, as well as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and some Presbyterians and Methodists, retain Lent to this day in continuity with the worldwide and historic Christian Church as a salutary outward discipline that gives Christians a wonderful opportunity for spiritual renewal. Our Lutheran observance of Lent combines many of the above features. Through Bible studies and mid-week and Sunday Lenten services highlighted by catechetical preaching, as well as devotional materials for the home, we come face to face with whatever sin may be hindering our walking in the Spirit, that is, walking in newness of life. But most profoundly, we not merely as individuals but as a Church come face to face with the Gospel of Jesus which forgives and removes our sin and gives us the strength to live anew.

There are two guiding principles for the observance of Lent. During this season, the baptized should grow in their faith and love toward Jesus crucified, and we should exercise a penitent heart while always keeping an eye on the victory of God on Easter.

The season of Lent gives almost unparalleled opportunity for preachers to placard before their auditors the Cross of Christ and beckon Christians to take up their cross and follow Him. It opens wide a door to preach the Third Use of the Law so frequently neglected in preaching today — namely heralding the ethical expectations of life in the Kingdom, indeed, heralding that the King has expectations for our sanctification according to His Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Auditors not only expect to hear about the ethic of the Kingdom, but they also welcome it. Boldly preach devotion to Christ and repentance of worldliness and bring the comfort of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins and our failures, along with the truth and hope that resurrection life is worthy of pursuit in the here and now.




Rev. John J. Bombaro, Ph.D. (King’s College, University of London) is a missionary of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, serving as the Assistant Director of Theological Education at the Luther Academy, Rīga, Latvia.