, or the Lenten fast is part of Christian religious practice. It is a time of preparation and self-sacrifice through fasting, and the giving up of worldly desires and activities. Dates for Lent differ slightly between Christian denominations. In Western Christianity, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and lasts 40 days (not including Sundays) until Holy Saturday. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity
, Lent starts on Clean Monday and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday
As with most elements of Christian belief and practice, origins, meanings, dates, and proper observance are debated at high levels, but are generally functional and helpful for the lay believer. Both Eastern Christianity (Orthodox), and Roman Catholicism surely practice Lent annually, as do many Protestant
There are some Protestants though (often called “Bible-believing, or New Testament” Churches
) that deny the legitimacy of Lent both historically, and the effectiveness of the practice. This article
on Lent from one such group concludes:
If you feel the Lord is leading you into a 40 day period of self-deprivation to draw nearer to Him, more power to you. But if you’re just observing a tradition of man’s religion it won’t serve any purpose except to prove that you can go without something for 40 days.
A similar group writes
Unlike New Year’s, Christmas, Halloween, St. Valentine’s Day and other pagan holidays that are celebrated by the secular, non-religious world, the Lenten season is observed by dedicated religious believers.
The beef these groups have with such doctrines and observances is tied in good part to the “anti-Rome” impulses of the Protestant Reformation.
This branch of the Protestant family says that Lent (and other Christian Holy Days) are inventions of the Roman Catholic Church, or what they call “man’s religion.”
Depending on how hostile one is to innovations in religion, the origin of Lent
can be placed anywhere from 339 Ce, to the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604), all the way to the Synod of Beneventum
, in 1091.
Those Christians who oppose this tradition, despite its widespread acceptance and practice in so many circles, do so on two grounds: 1. It has origins in Pagan ritual and belief, and 2. It violates their understanding of Christianity, which says that we cannot make ourselves better. Only God through Christ can make us better.
Here I’ll leave the doctrinal question aside (i.e., “is it really true that I can’t make myself better?”), and stick only to the very interesting historical question, does Lent really have Christian origins.
The answer is tied to the history of trying to bring "Pagans” into the fold of nominal Christianity by injecting and over-writing Pagan observances with the Christian story. What is the Christian story? Quite simply, the “Son” of God was born, after some time was killed while quite young, and He resurrected from the dead. This has big implications for you and me, so say Christians.
Because Christians believe that this story is true and historical, then each thing has to happen on some particular day or another. For example, was Jesus born in July? August? Was He a summer baby? Was He killed on a frigid, snowy day, in a dark wintry forest? He, like you and me is born on some day, and dies on some particular day. As it turns out His birthday is celebrated in December (Western) or January (Eastern), and His death and resurrection are celebrated in the April.
The dates, (and in the case of both Lent and Easter - even the names) are related to Pagan observances and celebrations, namely the winter solstice, and the vernal equinox. Placing Christian Holy Days over the top of these Pagan festivals was the Church's effort to help pagans “elevate” their religious impulses making what they're "gonna do anyway" "Christian."
As we say on the street here, “How’s that going for ya?” The "Christmas” tree
(the evergreen) originates in pagan traditions associated with the winter solstice, and such fertility symbols as eggs and rabbits originate in pagan celebrations of Spring (Lent actually means Spring)! So last Christmas which got more time and attention? Christmas trees, or baby Jesus? This coming Easter same question, what will be all over us more? Chocolate eggs and bunnies, or the risen Lord Jesus? Lent too is just one more attempt by the Church
overwrite Pagan traditions with the Christian story.
But why must the conversation be so fractious? Why this either-or? Our lives do have cycles. The dark of winter surely has meaning, and impacts our feelings, thoughts, and reflections. It is exciting that even a baby evergreen carries life more powerful than the icy winter cold that drives all else “to sleep.”
The Spring thaw does fill us with the thrill of risen life? It does for me, from my very first Spring, and every one since, through all my decades, life brand new every time. For those to whom Jesus and the Christian story are the truest and the best, how great that the white mystery of winter, and the new-life in the Spring breeze is at once the wonder of Christ.
I was amazed this year to find that SO many friends who never go to church are involved in major ‘foregoings’ for Lent. Can this be bad? It must be the case that the inner truth of Spring’s new life is known in some way to Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and even Pagans alike. When our hearts leap together at the enchanting thrill of Spring, let us each give one to the other a knowing wink? The “God-given” cycles of life can be occasions of how we dream together.