What is Lent?

What is Lent?

Rev. James Estes

The word Lent is derived from the Latin for fortieth. This is because Lent marks the 40 days leading up to Holy Week, in which we remember Jesus’ betrayal, abandonment, suffering, death and (eventually) his triumphant resurrection. This period of 40 days is understood by the Church to be a penitential season. This begs the question, what is a penitential season?

The presupposition of the Christian faith, and of Lent in particular, is that our biggest problems are not ‘out there’ in the world. A primary cause of the anguish and sorrow of the human family is ‘me.’ Through my own thoughts, habits, attitudes and predispositions, I perpetuate all that is wrong and broken in this world. I am complicit. If you believe this at some level, then you are close to being Christian and Lent is for you.

The thought goes on from there, that if God’s good creation will ever be healed and restored to God’s good design, if God’s dream for creation is ever to come true, then my life cannot continue as it is. My life must be completely different. And how can I be any different than I am? The Church has long answered this question with the word, penance.

Dallas Willard wrote, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. And it is well directed, decisive, and sustained effort that is the key to the keys of the kingdom and to the life of restful power in ministry and life that those keys open to us.” An illustration might be helpful.

In summer of 2012 I had an ACL reconstruction. I had a wonderful surgeon who performed a brilliant surgery. I have never had any complications. Two days after surgery, I had my first visit with the physical therapist. It was a love/hate relationship from the first. When I wasn’t in her office, she was one of my favorite people. She led me in exercises that were painful, she measured ranges of motion and strength, and she told me to do painful things at home in my leisure time. I did not like doing them, but she put the fear of God in me. She told me that I would never regain full function of my knee if I did not do the painful work.

This is something like the way penance works in our spiritual growth. Penance isn’t the surgery. It doesn’t fix broken things in us. And you and I are not the surgeon. We cannot right what is deeply broken within our own affections and desires. But the great physician has done something to us (and in us and for us), something that we often cannot see with the naked eye. 

And penance is a way for us to agree with that work, to allow that work to have its full effect.

“And this is the heart of Lent—that what is deeply true and good and beautiful—that which is worthy of our best energy can be seen supremely in Jesus.”
– Rev. James Estes

Physical therapy isn’t the only love/hate relationship in my life. I love fasting (when I’m not fasting). I am always glad to have been in worship, but sometimes have a hard time being energized for it beforehand. And it is this way with prayer also, and Bible study, and Christian accountability and so many other aspects of the life of faith.

But if we will give ourselves to these sometimes-painful exercises, slowly we will find that our inward lives are taking a different shape, that our affections and longings are somehow beginning to look (just a little bit) more like Jesus.

And this is the heart of Lent—that what is deeply true and good and beautiful—that which is worthy of our best energy can be seen supremely in Jesus. He is where true joy and fulfillment can be found. This Lent, embrace a difficult (or even a little painful) practice. Read a gospel through every week and make Sunday worship a top priority. Dedicate regular and frequent time for fasting and prayer. Join a Lenten K-group. Let’s see if 40 days doesn’t begin to make a bit of difference in solving the world’s biggest problems.

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