Ever hear of a fish fry? Well, if you grew up in the Midwest or Northeast, you may be very familiar with this weekly event every spring. Advertisements in restaurant windows and banners for community dinners draw even the most reluctant of us to see what this feast is all about. Now if you were raised in a liturgical church, you know Fridays were for fasting so fish was on the menu — at school, at home, and at restaurants throughout town. And so it is that during Lent, many liturgical churches in different areas of the country hold fish fries to welcome those who are fasting during this season.
But not all of us are familiar with the traditions of this season. Unless last Wednesday found you having a priest smudge ashes across your forehead, you may be less-than-familiar with Lent.
What does Lent mean anyway?
Let's start with the word Lent, itself.
The word “Lent” comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for “spring.” That is a little surprising as it lacks any “religious” meaning. But spring is not only the time when we experience the lengthening of the days from the season of winter but the time when new life is found on the leaves of trees and the flowers of fields.
Nature couldn't provide a better picture of a season leading up to the resurrection of Jesus than to have life springing up in dead places!
Perhaps the old word for “Spring” is actually quite appropriate in setting the tone for a 40-day period reflecting on the life of our Lord.
That leads us to the meaning of Lent as a season. Lent has a long tradition of being calculated to begin forty-ish days leading up to Easter Sunday. Sundays are typically excluded from the count so the actual number of days is around 46 with only 40 days of actual celebration. This tradition goes as far back as the fourth century and probably even earlier!
So, why forty days? Some have suggested it is because Jesus fasted and faced temptation in the desert for forty days (Matthew 4:1-11 & Luke 4:1-13). There probably is some truth to that. During that time, Jesus prepared for His public ministry. But there is also meaning in the fact that forty has symbolic meaning in the Bible.
Forty days is the number of waiting and preparation. A forty-day period signified a moment held in suspense.
Jesus' ministry was not all rainbows and butterflies. It was full of conflict. During his time in the desert, He fasted and had to face the enemy tempting Him to veer from the path the Father had planned. Afterwards, the political and religious regimes of Jesus' day were not only skeptics of His ministry, but were plotting to kill Him. Needless to say, the ministry of Jesus was full of suspense.
Lent is a time of preparation. A time when we rehearse the life of Christ. In this season, we are invited to immerse ourselves in the drama, the tension, and the conflict leading up to the events of Jesus' death and resurrection. You could say that Lent is a time when we watch the plot thicken and develop.
Through forty days of immersion, we become one of the disciples following Jesus, watching as the drama unfolds.
In this way, when we arrive on Good Friday, we are ready to relive the power of the cross. “Holy Saturday” becomes a remembrance of what must have been the most confusing and sad Sabbath days in all history. But then comes Sunday, when the tombstone is rolled away and the life of our Messiah bursts forth like the blooming of a springtime flower! All of this has more emotional weight because we invested forty days feeling the suspense of the life of Christ. We have prepared our minds and hearts to fully engage in the most powerful act of human history: Redeeming humankind.
Lent is a time to appreciate the greatest story.
Life is fast-paced and our attention is always being demanded of us. If we are not intentional, we can miss the moments of life to slow-down and remember that the story is good. God has won. And life is lived in a new paradigm in light of Easter Sunday. Lent welcomes us into this time to slow down and embrace the meaning of this story and find out place in it.
So how can we participate in Lent and celebrate this season? Is Fish Friday all there is to it? Many traditions of Lent include fasting.
It is important to note that fasting is optional.
There is nothing about Lent season that is required. And fasting certainly is not mandatory. Yet, many people appreciate a time to fast. Some choose fasting from certain foods, habits, or even social media. The purpose of the fast is not simply to remove something negative, but to make room for more of Jesus. If we fast to simply be miserable and endure the deprivation, we are missing the unique opportunity to connect with Jesus in deeper ways.
If you choose to fast, also choose how and when you will connect more with Christ. If you skip a meal, use that time for prayer. If you fast social media, scroll through some Bible passages instead of your feed. If you fast sweets or dessert, use your after-dinner time for a walk to connect with God in nature. Like Spring cleaning, the disciplinary function of Lent is meant to make room for the good things God has in store. Any Lent fast is less like starving ourselves (literally or metaphorically) and more like savoring the refreshment the Lord gives.
Lent is not about what we give up. It's about what we gain when we immerse ourselves in Jesus' story!
This Lent season, read the story of Jesus and then live the story as well. Find ways to make the Gospel tangible for someone around you. Experience the truth of the Messiah's words when He said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Here at Newbreak, we have a special Lent Devotional created just for you so you can connect with God more intentionally during this season. We would love for you to join us as we journey together through Scripture and reflect on the meaning of this season!