What’s the point of Lent?

What's the point of Lent?
Photo taken at Time Warner Center by Lauren Manning, Flickr

Lent is the time we’re supposed to forgo things, right? Television, alcohol, Facebook, dessert. We’ve all heard the commonly asked question, particularly at the start of the forty-day fasting period: “What are you giving up for Lent?”

But why? What’s the point? For some, it’s personal. Fasting exercises a rarely used muscle in the human will—self denial—and giving up a self-indulgent activity can help build character and possibly bring us closer to God.

For others, it’s health. Inspired by the traditional practice of forgoing animal products during the season, some encourage a vegan diet, saying it “improve[s] health, enhance[s] animal welfare and reduce[s] strain on the environment.”

For still others, it’s increasingly about social and political concerns, reaching outside of ourselves to the world around us. That’s what inspired the so-called carbon fast—a daily, intentional curtailment of carbon-emitting activities throughout the Lenten period.

But there’s much more to Lent than giving up x, y, or z. There’s taking on something: Christ. Jesus is the reason for this season, too.

Lent is all about Christ. The forty-day fast, for instance, ties directly back to his forty-day fast in preparation for ministry.

Historically speaking, the Lenten fast precedes Easter as a way of preparing new believers for baptism. Catechumens, typically brought into the Church at Easter time, made their hearts ready by fasting and prayer, the same way Paul did in the ninth chapter of Acts before his baptism. Lent provided time for that and instruction in the faith.

As the end and culmination of Lent, baptism shows us what the fast is ultimately all about. Throughout the Easter seasons the great baptismal hymn from Galatians 3 is chanted:

As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.

The pre-Lenten lectionary makes the point even more fully. According to the reading from Romans 13, we are to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Fasting denies the flesh and its desires. But why? For the express purpose of better enabling us to put on Christ, to grow in Christ, to become more like Christ. Fasting is a means to an end. We deny ourselves to transform ourselves. Prayer, reflection, and confession are part of that transformation and fill our plates as we abstain from lesser meats.

To mix metaphors, Lent is the road; Jesus is the destination.

If mere self-denial were the thing, as Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon has reminded, we could get by as Muslims. Ramadan is a perfectly suitable fast for such purposes. But there’s no Jesus in Ramadan. And any number of occasions provides reason to observe and act upon various social, environmental, and political causes.

Don’t misread me. Anything that makes us less self-indulgent and more aware of our responsibilities to our neighbor can be helpful. But let’s not miss the larger goal, the greater reason. The point of the Christian walk is to become like Christ, and Lent—the fasting, the prayers, the repentance, the self-discipline—is there to help us on the journey.

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  • Thanks for this post. I’m observing lent for the first time in my life this year. Not because I want to try it or want to see if I can deny something for good health reasons. But to be in a commit place with Christ so that it the end of 40 I can grow closer to him through what I’ve learned about me in the process. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it as much as I welcome the season of it.

    • Spence, I’m excited for you. I can’t wait to hear your journey goes this season.

  • Thanks for the post. As you rightly pointed out Christ is our Destination. Am looking forward to Know Christ More This Lent Season. Thanks for the Reminder.

  • “Lent is the road, Jesus is the destination.” Very well said! I felt the need to share the reason of Lent, too. So my blog post today was called “Why Do We Need Lent?” 😀 I believe the purpose of the Lent really is making more room in us for the Sacred to enter and prepare us for the joy of Easter. Thanks for the great post. Lenten Blessings!

  • Thanks for the post. In my circles I hear either ‘That’s a silly tradition about giving up chocolate’ or ‘That’s just for Catholics, Episcopals, and others who don’t really get the gospel.’

    I’ve even slightly turned my nose up in judgment at ‘nominal’ Christians who I assumed used the season to kickstart a diet. Then my wife and I gave up sugar and alcohol last year. I don’t know if we truly captured the spirit of Lent, but it uncovered character issues that really surprised us. Making the disciplined decisions also was a continual reminder of Christ: every time I saw donuts in my breakroom, it stopped me in my tracks and I’d think of Jesus for a few moments. Silly, maybe, but over 40 days, powerful.

    • Brett, thanks. I think the hunger of the fast is in part designed to make us hungry for Christ. And how often are we ever really hungry? We would all — including those Christians who ignore Lent — benefit from the self denial and renewed focus on Jesus that grounds the season. Sometimes we forget that this isn’t just Catholic or mainline Protestant. It’s the formal, regular practice of the Church for the last seventeen hundred years. And fasting, generally speaking, is as ancient as you can get. The fact that we don’t do it regularly today is sad, really.

  • Challenged and inspired by the FULL fasting picture in Isaiah 58: 1-14…not only about denying self to draw closer to Christ but to go beyond that and reach out to those who are in need.

  • John

    “Forgo . . . desert”? Surely you meant dessert.

    But what about the desert? Isn’t the point of Jesus’ fast also about a confrontation with evil, with temptation, with the devil, in the wilderness? Isn’t Lent also about this, about confronting spiritual trouble, not just outside ourselves, but also within?

    People used to think so.

    • Surely I do. Thanks for catching that; now fixed above.

      Very helpful observation. As we pursue Christ we will have to do business with our demons — our own sins and the Devil. If we are ignoring that aspect then we will not grow. Our practice will have been for naught.

      The Orthodox Church prescribes fasting disciplines and extra services and practices that are designed (and have been used for centuries) to help with this effort. Sometimes we think we have to sort out our observances on our own. We need to remember that we can plug into what the Church is already doing.

  • For me, focusing on Jesus and his work of my redemption through the cross does not come naturally. I need to be intentional. We did not participate in Lent growing up because it was seen as ceremonial and primarily because we were baptist. I do find special reminders helpful, though.

    • I would commend it to you. The whole church calendar is given to help bring Christ to mind, to help us sustain the remembrance of what he’s done in us individually and the church collectively. That’s one of the great things about historic Christianity — the church knows that sustained focus doesn’t come naturally and so provides us tools to stay on task throughout the day, week, month, and year.

  • Drew Rowe

    “We deny ourselves to transform ourselves.”

    This is the error that too many Christians make. We are incapable of transforming ourselves, only God can transform our lives. We deny ourselves during Lent only to create a heightened awareness of our own weakness and unworthiness. Lent is primarily a time of repentance and preparation, like Advent–Of asking God to forgive us of our sins and to bring us into a right relationship with Him. Fasting is only ancillary to Lent (similar to the Christmas tree), not the central purpose of Lent. If we are truly repentant then God will fulfill the promise that he has made to us:

    “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

    Ezekiel 36: 25-27.

    • It’s not an error. It’s obedience. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

      God’s grace works in synergy with us. He loves, we respond in love. He calls, we obey. The transformation is impossible without God, but grace isn’t one-sided. We engage with the work that God is doing in our lives. Lent is a time of focused engagement.

      Fasting is not ancillary; it’s instrumental. It’s part of how we engage. It’s not the point, as I said above. It’s a means to an end. That end is the transformation of our lives into the image and likeness of Christ — a destination we only reach as we lay down our lives, something Lent uniquely helps us to do.

  • “Lent is all about Christ.”

    Thank you for getting to the real heart of the matter.

  • Roy Wallen

    There is nothing I can do that will draw me to Christ; grace is unmerited favor. He made the ultimate sacrifice so that I don’t have to. Just as we need to remember His coming regardless of the season, so must we be willing to discard those things that would keep me from Him; we don’t need a lenten season for any of this. Rather, we need to be willing recipients of His grace, independent of anything we could do.

    • God’s grace draws you to Christ. If you’re a believer, then that grace is active in your heart through the Holy Spirit.

      The “doing” or “works” part of faith is in response to God’s outpouring of grace. But works are part of the story. Paul says in Ephesians 2 that God created us in Christ for good works.

      Those works are part of our being Christ.

  • Jane Doe

    Fasting helps brings the body into subjection with your human spirit… fasting is part of the christian walk… but why do people need to put it during lent!? It’s almost like a tradition of sort. I don’t see why people reserve this practice for a particular part of the year.

  • Thanks for the reminder that the journey is too Christ himself.

  • Good stuff, Joel. I was talking with a coworker yesterday and we had a really similar conversation. The real unique message of Lent, Easter, and the whole gospel is either Jesus or nothing.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • Nic

    I really like your idea that Lent is “taking on something,” as I feel that reflects the enriching and additive aspects of the challenges it brings.

    -Nic, Up in the Corner

  • I love Lent and Advent – two seasons that I have learned the significance of as I’ve grown up in my faith.

    • Ditto. I never practiced the season until the last few years, but it’s a truly wonderful and challenging experience.