Understanding Lent

In case you’ve missed the subtle reminders (ads for fish sandwich Fridays and friends’ Facebook posts divulging what they’re giving up), the season of Lent is upon us. Some view the 40ish-days (this is addressed later) before Easter as preparation for celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Others claim it’s a man-made ritual that does little to bring anyone closer to the cross. Those in the middle might make a crack about the fuzz found at the bottom of pockets (lint).

To help bring clarity to a perhaps otherwise fuzzy topic, I connected with philosopher/theologianKenneth Samples.

Ken, many people consider the observance of Lent as unique to the Roman Catholic Church. Are there other denominations that recognize the season?

These days I think engaging in Lent is much more popular in liturgical traditions: Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Orthodox, and, to some extent, Reformed. The typical Baptist or Assemblies of God or Evangelical Free Church might not have much connection.

Can you explain a few aspects of Lent for those unfamiliar?

When you think about it historically, Easter resides at the heart of all branches of Christendom; Lent is this period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It commemorates Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and serves as a time of anticipation and preparation. It’s a time to think about the investment God made in salvation, the weightiness of it all. We think also about our sins and the need for repentance as well as the luxuries we have and what we can do without. Lent is especially highlighted during Holy Week—from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.

What about the biblical significance of the events observed during Lent—Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday?

Ash Wednesday is a time to recognize that we are more sinful than we really know and to anticipate the forgiveness in Christ that came through His death and resurrection. Palm Sunday marks Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem where, less than a week later, he would be crucified. Maundy Thursday recalls the last supper and Christ’s agony. Good Friday is the most solemn day, the day Christ died for our sins. And then we have the great celebration of Easter.

They’re powerful days to think about the Gospel. I see them as having a real biblical basis. As for verses we might point to in support of Ash Wednesday, I think there’s a strong emphasis on a time of repentance. But specific verses? That might be doubtful. It might be more general than specific, such as with the lighting of the candles and special Scripture readings and hymns during the Advent season.

It seems there’s little going on between Ash Wednesday and the next holy day, Palm Sunday.

The length of days represents a connection to Jesus’ fasting for 40 days.

And yet Lent is actually longer than 40 days. I’ve read that this is because Sundays are considered “mini-Easters” and are, therefore, not counted. Is that correct?

I’m not sure except to say that in many of the liturgical churches, Sundays are the Lord’s Day. So every Sunday is, in one sense, another Resurrection Day. It’s like every single week is pointing you to the Resurrection.

What about the criticisms of observing Lent? I’ve heard various arguments; in fact I had a few of my own while growing up in a Catholic home. Usually the concerns are that we ought not be held to a schedule and that we ought to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice at all times, not just on specific days of the year.

It’s important to remember that, as believers, our lives are now caught up in Christ’s life. And the church year recalls and celebrates the events of Christ’s life. Christmas brings us to the Incarnation. The Resurrection is the other side of the church year. I think for far too many Christians who are not part of a liturgical body, all they have when thinking about the Resurrection are Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I like the church year because it brings my everyday life a little closer to Christ’s life.

Some would still argue that giving up chocolate, for instance, does nothing to share in Christ’s suffering.

I don’t think there’s anything petty about giving up something you really enjoy when it’s to say, “Lord, I’m trying to draw all my attention to you.” That’s an individual’s decision. If it’s motivated by grace and out of gratitude for God, I’m not going to tell people how to practice their Lent season.

What about abstaining from meat on Fridays? How does one look at that in light of 1 Corinthians 8 that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat?

That practice of abstaining from meat is probably unique to Catholicism. I’ve never heard of it in other theological traditions. Yet I think it has to do with the idea of sacrifice. I look favorably on Lent if it’s celebrated in light of and because of grace, not in a legalistic, superstitious way, as if bargaining with God. As for fasting, it’s not easy to fast, but when it’s done, it ought to be done with prayer and out of gratitude.

Some might disagree with your acceptance of a predominantly Catholic practice.

I don’t want to sidestep the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism because we do differ. But I think we sometimes overlook the similarities. As branches of Christendom, we need to learn how to get along with each other.

Reminds me of one of my favorite verses, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

Yeah. That’s a good verse.


What I garnered from reflecting on Lent is that all branches of Christianity are equally connected to the 40 days Christ spent alone and hungry in the wilderness, then His entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, His Passion, and His Resurrection. Whether that means filet o’ fish Friday or not depends on the individual. But the body is the body, and it’s intertwined with Christ every day of the (liturgical) year.

What do you think about Lent? Is there something you’ve made a decision to give up or focus on during this season?

– Sandra

Related Articles:

It Is a Good Friday

Three Reasons I Love the Advent Season

If Christ Had Not Been Raised: Reasoning through the Resurrection