Lent is a period of 40 days preceding the celebration of Christ’s Passion. The word itself in English comes from an Old English word for Spring, though in other languages it has different names.
The 40 days of Lent are meant to connect us to Jesus’ 40 day fast at the beginning of his ministry, where he withdrew into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. How the 40 days are calculated varies. In Roman Catholicism, Lent technically starts on the Sunday after Ash Wednesday and lasts until the evening of Holy Thursday, though some sources start it on Ash Wednesday, making it 44 days long. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Great Lent begins on Clean Monday (two days before Ash Wednesday) and lasts initially for 40 days until Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday. Even though the 40 days are over, the fast continues through Holy Week until after Easter Vigil. Protestants who celebrate Lent start it on Ash Wednesday and continue it until Easter but exclude Sundays to make it exactly 40 days.
However it is calculated, Lent is preparation for entering into the events of Holy Week, helping us to remember our need for a savior and Jesus’ gracious love for us exhibited in his suffering on our behalf. It is a time of self-reflection, repentance, “putting to death what remains of our sinful nature” (Col. 3:5), and self-denial. The connection to Jesus’ fast in the desert is the inspiration for the Lenten fast, which is most severe in the Orthodox tradition, and for the practice of “giving up something for Lent.”
If you choose to give something up, select it carefully. At its best, it should not simply be an exercise in self-denial, but rather something that will help improve you as a person. Give up a bad habit or a compulsive behavior—for example, social media, texting, or just obsessive political posting. When Lent is over and you are returning to your normal life, you will likely find yourself less compulsive about the behavior you had given up. With a little care and maintenance, this could become a permanent change in your life. Lent thus becomes a means for developing godliness and freeing us from the control of things in this world.
Along with fasting and repentance, Lent is also associated with almsgiving. For example, the money saved by participating in the Lenten Fast would be given to the poor. Lent is thus intended to encourage us to think beyond our own interests and to find ways to serve those around us, especially the needy. This again can take a variety of forms. Perhaps the time saved from a social media or texting fast could be used for volunteer work, or perhaps your fast will involve giving up a regular weekly activity to help with a literacy program or to work at a food bank or to volunteer at a school or senior center. Perhaps you could give up your daily latte and donate the money saved to a social service agency—40 days at $3 per day (conservatively) is a substantial sum for many charities. The point is that when properly celebrated, Lent can and should connect us to the needy in the community and lead us to ways to serve them.
Is celebrating Lent a requirement for Christians? No. Scripture doesn’t command it. But Scripture does call us to self-denial, to take up our cross, to look out for the interests of others, to set our minds on things above not on things on earth, and a host of similar commands that are counter-cultural in our self-indulgent world but that Lent is intended to teach us. Celebrating Lent with intention and understanding can help us to practice these Scriptural commands and can serve as an annual reminder that our call is ultimately to love God and neighbor and to live not for this age but for the age to come.