Just so you know: What is Lent?

Following Ash Wednesday, which occurred on March 5 this year, the season and practices of Lent, implemented by various Christian denominations, began.

According to Dr. Craig McMahan, dean of chapel at Mercer University, in the earliest Christian traditions, new converts were baptized on Easter, therefore, “there was a need for a period of preparation to help them understand what they were getting into.” Lent acted as a 40-day period of preparation before Easter that was used for new converts to be taught about their faith, to come to learn about how their faith affected their lives and how they needed to reshape their lives around this new faith in Jesus. The purpose of Lent for the earliest Christians was used for new converts and already existing Christians as a period of confession, reflection and self-examination.

“The 40-day period came from the 40 days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness where his own sense of ministry and vocation is shaped,” said McMahan.

McMahan explained that the purpose of confession, especially that which happens during the period of Lent, “is not to be self-loathing or self-hatred but a recognition that we are already loved and an honest approach to [addressing] our aspects that need growth.” The whole idea of confession in the Christian faith is not one designed of self-loathing but recognition of areas for growth. “If your view of God is one of a judge, then the meaning of confession for you is pleading guilty to being a criminal. If your image of God is one that Jesus tried to implement, as a parent, your understanding of confession is one of standing before one who loves you more than you love yourself.”

Traditionally, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, lasting for a 40-day period, excluding Sundays, until Holy Saturday, which falls on April 19 this year. While some Western denominations still uphold this time frame for Lent, Roman Catholics begin Lent on Ash Wednesday and end when Mass starts on Maundy Thursday, which is April 17 this year.

At the end of Ash Wednesday services, the priest or minister (or in some cases officiating layperson) take ashes—traditionally from the burnt palm branches that were used in the Palm Sunday service from the previous year—and makes the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads. While crossing, the worship leader either says, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,” from Genesis 3:19 or, “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” from Mark 1:15. McMahan said that the point of the references is that they are a reminder to think about what kind of life you want to live.

According to McMahan, after Ash Wednesday, the practices of the season of Lent include spending time paying attention to oneself through reflection. Secondly, Christians are to name those things that still need work in their own lives. “By naming those things, we can identify the problem and solution,” said McMahan. Lastly, it is a time to work on those problems by a time of prayer, increased worship attendance and Biblical reading. McMahan said a Christian during Lent is “really trying to take the daily practices of what a Christian should do and making sure [they] are attending to those throughout this period.”

Another practice of Lent is that Christians usually give up something. McMahan described this as practice in order to try “to cut out the distractions that keep you from hearing the things around you. It is a reminder that our life does not consist of the things that we possess, but that our life comes from another place.”

Finally, McMahan said, “Lent is to remind of us of who we are.” So whether this is your first, tenth or thirtieth year following Lent, it is a time for Christians to engage in an important aspect of their faith by becoming more in tune to themselves and to God.