What is the real Purpose of Lent? Why do we have this season anyway?
Why all the focus on “sacrifice”? Why do we fast? How do we decide what to “give up” or what to do? Why make resolutions anyway?
It is true that Lent encourages us to make sacrifices, to “die to ourselves” like Christ, to give more, to work harder, to move outside our comfort zone but if that’s all we see, or if we think that we do those things as ends in themselves, we are sorely mistaken. In fact, misunderstanding the purpose of Lent is the #1 reason so many people resent Lent AND why they are making all the wrong resolutions.
Let’s reverse this epidemic.
A Quick History (of Lent)
Extended periods of fasting were popular practice all the way back into the Old Testament. They hearken back symbolically to the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert for 40 years, to the repentant fasting of the Ninevites, and to a remembrance of the Babylonian exile. It is thought that the earliest Christians all observed extended periods of fasting, and often embraced it as a lifestyle (think John the Baptist and the Desert Fathers). It is said that this custom was likely observed in preparation for Easter since apostolic times, and simply formalized in 325AD by the Council of Nicea, who formally defined the length of 40 days in remembrance of Christ’s 40 day fast in the desert.
Thus, our Lent is meant to be our own version of Christ’s 40 day fast in the desert.
The Purpose of Lent – What is it for?
Lent is an invitation to join God in the desert. Just you and Him. A setting out. A stripping away of all the other things, all the cares, all the worries, all the distractions. This is only about you and God, and anything that comes between you and Him has to be put aside / left behind – that’s what it means to go out to the desert with Him. This includes things like noise, entertainment, empty conversations, purposeless pastimes, and excessive focus on even the “necessities” that ordinarily consume our time and can distract us from Him – like food and sleep – hence the popularity of resolutions regarding fasting and not hitting the snooze button.
Christ’s experience in the desert gave Him strength – not that He needed strength in the sense that He was already perfect God, but in His also perfect humanity He deigned to experience the same things we do, fatigue, hunger, pain, etc. The enemy recognizes that after a fast human beings are naturally depleted of human strength, so he takes his opportunity to strike and poses his 3 famous temptations at the end of Christ’s 40 day fast. But, though Jesus’ human form truly was weak (He was hungry – Matthew 4:2), He was filled with Divine strength (Matthew 4:4) and was able to face all of them without flinching. This is a lesson to us as well, that as St. Paul says “His power is made perfect in my weakness”. We fast to experience our human weakness and witness His divine strength working in us.
I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength – Philippians 4:13
All things are possible for God – Matthew 19:26
- Preparation for Transformation
Lastly, Christ went to the desert in anticipation of His public ministry. Not for a random period of 40 days in order to simply return to his former life. No. He went there to be strengthened for the journey He knew awaited Him and with a firm purpose to step out and never look back.
No one putting his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God – Luke 9:62 (DRB)
Quick caviat… What’s NOT the purpose of Lent?
If you live Lent for any of the following reasons, you are likely missing the purpose:
- Losing Weight– I’m sorry. That’s not Lent, that’s a diet.
- Extra motivation for reviving New Years Resolutions – While commendable, since your motivation is still extrinsic and merely under a different name, you will likely end up with the same result as before (hate to break it to you)
- Self-Deprecation – If you think Lent is about making sacrifices for the sake of sacrifices, or if its a season to wallow in pity parties about how “hard” it all is, or if your sacrifices make you irritable and unkind to the people around you, you may need to revisit your “why”.
- Being “Awesome” – If you “do Lent” just to check boxes and marvel at how strong you are, or if you donate more money or food to the local food back just to impress people or feel good about yourself, then you are also missing the point.
Lent is meant to be a fruitful, transformative experience,
not something dry and purposeless. It is a season of fasting/mortification/penance, sure, but not for its own sake, only because those are the precious means of transforming our hearts from rocky, thorn choked ground to lush and fruitful… as long as we know how to use them.
Lent isn’t about making heroic feats of prayer, fasting, or almsgiving, or even doing specific resolutions. It’s not so much a process of transforming ourselves but of letting ourselves be transformed.
- God Designs our Seasons – Happy Lent!
- Finding peace in the cross.
- In the Face of the Cross – A reflection on Psalm 22