In a traditional church calendar, the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday are known as the season of Lent. It’s a season of fasting and prayer in anticipation of Holy Week—the week we celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ (Easter). In more traditional or liturgical church contexts, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when congregants receive a mark of ashes on their foreheads. The season is then observed by giving something up for 40 days, until the fast is ended on Palm Sunday.
Growing up, Lent often confused me. First, I thought everyone was talking about lint, and I was not sure what the fuzzy stuff in my pockets had to do with church. Second, while I knew we were supposed to give something up for 40 days, I didn’t understand why. So I gave up tomatoes. I hated tomatoes. It was one of the easiest decisions I ever made.
Lent can be equally confusing for congregations in the Free Church tradition, like Westgate. We don’t tend to pay much attention to the traditional church calendar, and so we’re not always sure whether we’re supposed to be participating in things like Lent, or what it’s all about.
THE SYMBOLISM OF LENT
Lent is not a biblically mandated observance. The practice developed gradually in church history, and didn’t really take shape until after the Council of Nicea in the fourth century A.D. For this reason, less formally liturgical churches (like Westgate) don’t tend to emphasize the practice.
But in its best forms, Lent does involve biblical spiritual disciplines, specifically those of prayer and fasting.
Ash Wednesday begins the season with biblical imagery of both humility and repentance. Humility, particularly in terms of reminding us of our mortality: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). And repentance, which was often expressed through “sackcloth and ashes.” For instance, when Daniel mourns over Israel’s exile and offers his prayer of repentance, he begins: “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3).
Similarly, the practice of giving something up for Lent is meant to be a form of fasting. Fasting is the act of denying oneself food (or something else) as a tangible act of dependence on God. We say no to certain physical appetites for a time in order to focus our longings and desires on God himself. It engages the body and the will in our spiritual pursuit of Christ.
While ancient Israel’s law only commanded them to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 26:29-31), God’s people have made a practice of fasting for a variety of reasons, like confessing sin (e.g. Neh. 9:1-2), bringing a burden or request before God (e.g. Exod. 24:18; 2 Sam. 12:15-23), or simply expressing one’s dependence on God, like Jesus in the wilderness (e.g. Matt. 4:1-2). It was a common part of the early church’s worship (cf. Acts 13:2-3; 14:23). And there are several examples of fasts lasting for forty days (e.g., Moses, Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:18; Elijah, 1 Kgs. 19:7-8; the Ninevites, Jon. 3:4; Jesus, Matt. 4:1-2).
One form of fasting is a fast of repentance—giving something up as an expression of sorrow and a plea for God’s mercy (e.g. Jer. 6:22-26; Dan. 9:1-19; Jon. 3:4-10; cf. Isa. 58). This is the specific idea of Lent.
Lent is a season of self-examination and repentance, expressed through self-denial, in preparation for Easter. The hunger we feel for food or something we’re used to is meant to remind us of our deeper hunger for God. It gives us an opportunity to examine our hearts and repent of anything we’re holding onto more tightly than God. And it’s meant to redirect our attention, desire, and dependence toward God’s means of satisfying that hunger—the cross and resurrection of Christ.
So while it’s not biblically mandated that we fast at this time or in this way, it can be a helpful and nourishing spiritual experience. And the occasion of Easter is as good an occasion as any to set aside time to focus on our dependence and relationship with God.
PRACTICING LENT AT WESTGATE
We don’t practice Lent at Westgate in the same way as most traditional churches. We don’t have an Ash Wednesday service, nor do we ask our congregants to give up something tangible for the season. You are welcome to do that of course, but there is no expectation, and we don’t want anyone to be motivated to do so by a sense of guilt or performance.
We do however encourage our congregation to give special attention to their relationship with God during this season, specifically in terms of prayer. And for that reason we are supplying this prayer devotional as a guide in deepening your relationship with Christ.