The Takeaway - The Basics of Lent
Today we’re talking about the basics of Lent: what it is, when it is, and how it got its name. So let’s begin with a few questions.
What is Lent? Lent is a 40-day season of preparation for Easter, like Advent is a season of preparation for Christmas. It lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (not including Sundays, every Sunday is a mini-Easter).
Next: when is Lent? Complicated question. Easter is a lunar holiday that’s on a different day each year. Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (March 21). Did you catch all that? Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (March 21). It’s not pinned to a calendar date but to a full moon. This means that Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25.
And finally, why in the world is it named Lent? It’s not related to the fuzzy stuff in your dryer. It’s spelled LENT, not LINT. Lent is from the Old English word, lencten, meaning spring, when the days lengthen. Most ancient and modern words for Lent in other languages mean “forty,” the number of days in the season.
The season of Lent was inspired by the story in the gospels of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness—the season of preparation for his ministry!
Now immediately after Jesus is baptized by John, then he begins to prepare in the wilderness. So let’s listen to this story from the gospel of Matthew:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4.1-11)
Jesus’ 40 days of preparation was quite a boot camp—he fasted for 40 days and then was tempted by the devil—the devil’s name means adversary, opponent, challenger. The devil tempts Jesus with bread, protection, and fame—all in exchange for trusting him instead of God. In other words, the devil asks Jesus in three different ways, who do you really trust? Who is your ultimate authority? Who is your God? Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness cemented his dependence on God.
Now the story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness was the main story that inspired the season of Lent in the early church. In 325 CE, the Church Council of Nicaea formally established the season of Lent as a 40 day season of preparation before Easter. And around 350 CE, Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “you have a long period of grace, 40 days for repentance.” From the earliest days, the church set aside a season of time to prepare for Easter. And it’s a season that we still set aside today.
We’ve looked to the Scriptures that inspired the season of Lent, and to church history for how it was established, which brings us to today.
Lent is the season right now. Advent, Christmas, and the New Year are all behind us—and Easter is solidly ahead of us. I invite you to take out a calendar (February through April) so you can see when Lent is. I want you to visually get a sense of the season. Feel free to pause this podcast if you need to a chance to find a calendar. The season starts with Ash Wednesday (this year that’s February 17), and ends with Easter (this year that’s April 4). How many Sundays are in Lent (excluding Easter)? I’ll give you a moment to count. Yes, you’re right, 6 Sundays.
You may want to mark your calendar for the season of Lent, which lasts from Ash Wednesday to Easter.
Now you can see the season; this is the time we set aside to prepare for Easter, with God’s help.
Let us pray.
Bless this season of Lent,
Make this time holy,
Help us to notice the present moment as we move through it.
Draw us back to you during these forty days,
Draw us closer to you through the keeping of this season,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, world without end, Amen.