What Lent is Really About

Lent….its that Catholic thing where you punish yourself by not eating chocolate.

I grew up in a mixed household, my Dad was Roman Catholic and my Mom grew up Presbyterian but eventually became a charismatic evangelical (notice I didn’t say pentecostal). Although my Dad was Roman Catholic, his Catholicism had very little effect upon the daily life of our family. In fact, at times it seems like I knew more about Catholic theology and doctrine than he did. My upbringing was certainly affected more by my Mom’s spirituality than my Father’s… and my Mom’s spirituality was birthed in Guatemala. Guatemala is one of the most Protestant countries in Latin America. As a result of being so Protestant, it was often the case that Protestants tried very hard to distinguish themselves from the Roman Catholics. One of the ways they did this was by refusing to celebrate Lent. Afterall, Lent is a Catholic thing….. and Catholic things are bad. Right? Wrong!

Lent is a Catholic thing….. and Catholic things are bad.

That statement is wrong on so many levels… But today I only want to tackle one, namely that Lent is a Catholic thing. Lent is certainly not only a Catholic thing. Protestants including Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans celebrate Lent (it is usually only a High Church thing though….) Lent lasts 40 days, not counting Sundays. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. It is done in commemoration of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. So during Lent you fast from something for 40 days, just like Jesus fasted for 40 days. Most people give up easy things. Chocolate seems to be a popular thing to give up. Other times people give up really important things, like coffee. And yet other times people don’t get why they give things up and they give up really stupid things. For instance, when I was in 5th grade I had an Episcopal friend who was giving up sinning for 40 days. Really man? Sinning? Anyway, Lent is about fasting from something for 40 days.

Many people give things up as an act of self-discipline. Lent becomes an act of self-mortification. The thought process is “I’m going to give up something I like because that makes God happy.” It becomes a moralistic exercise of self discipline. But here is the catch

Lent isn’t a moralistic exercise of self-discipline, its a celebration of our union with the one who resisted temptation on our behalf.

When you give something up for Lent and you are tempted to choose that thing over your commitment to God you get to experience (in a very conscious way) temptation. When you are tempted to mess up your fast you are reminded of the fact that you are incapable of choosing what God desires over your own desires. When you are tempted to grab that Candy bar and throw away the past 30 days of Lent you are reminded that you do the same thing each time you sin. Each time you sin you choose yourself over God. If Lent were simply about reminding us of our hopelessness in light of temptation then this would mean that Lent is a very negative celebration. If this were the end of the story Lent would be one of the most depressing seasons of the year.

But Lent isn’t depressing. Lent is a celebration!

Remember what Lent commemorates? It commemorates the fact that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan, yet Jesus never succumbed to that temptation. Jesus was victorious over Satan and the temptations that human beings face. Here is the good news: If you are a Christian then Christ’s victory over temptation is your victory over temptation. It is a vicarious defeat of temptation. It is a vicarious defeat over Satan. Christ defeated temptation on our behalf because we simply could not do it ourselves.

So every time you feel tempted to give up on Lent remember the fact that when you are weak, Christ was strong. And if you are in Christ then Christ was strong on your behalf. Use this season to remember the basic truth of the Gospel, namely that Jesus took our place and did for us what we could never do on our own.

The Sinai Peninsula
The Wilderness

Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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