What Is Lent? And How Do Christians Observe It?

By Ryan J. Pemberton

“Is this something we do?” I remember asking when I first heard the word Lent.

Even though my father is Catholic, I grew up in a Protestant house where Lent, Ash Wednesday, and fasting were as exotic as Rome, the pope, and crucifixes. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I saw Christians with crosses of ash smeared on their foreheads and heard of friends giving up coffee or chocolate for a season.

“Why?” I asked, confused by the sudden austerity. “That’s just what you do,” they said—and I left the conversation wondering who they meant by “you,” unsure what this tradition was all about.

What is Lent?

Lent is celebrated by millions of Christians each year, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestants. This year, Lent begins on March 2, when many worshipers will attend an Ash Wednesday service and don an ashen cross on their foreheads.

Over the next 40 days, many Christians who observe Lent will voluntarily give up certain foods or activities as a way of remembering Jesus’ suffering. The sacrificial posture of Lent leads into the celebration of Easter, ending on the day before Easter Sunday.

Is Lent biblical?

For those who find themselves confused about Lent, it’s worth asking where this tradition comes from.

While the word “Lent” (from Old English lencten, which means “spring”) does not appear in the Old or New Testament, its practices find precedent in Church history and throughout Scripture. Ash Wednesday has been observed since the eleventh century. However, as Lauren F. Winner notes in a 2016 Time magazine article, the practice of having ashes spread on one’s forehead didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1970s.

Winner cites the penance and ashes in Daniel 9 as a biblical basis for Ash Wednesday. Daniel’s confession for the sin of God’s people is marked on his body with ashes (9:3). Later, he notes that the rescue he hopes for in God is not because of this act or the people’s blamelessness, but by God’s mercy alone: “We do not present our supplication before you on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of your great mercies” (9:18).

What’s the meaning of Lent?

In addition to observing Ash Wednesday and Lent as an embodied request for God’s mercy, Christians keep Lenten tradition to enter into solidarity with Christ’s suffering so they might more fully celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The practice of fasting evokes reflection on Christ’s 40-day period of temptation and suffering in the wilderness (Mark 1:12–13; Matt 4:1–11; Luke 1:1–13; see especially Jesus’ words, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”). While fasting will not be part of our eternal worship at Christ’s banquet table, Jesus makes clear that fasting is expected of all his disciples in the wake of his death, resurrection, and ascension (Mark 2:20; Matt 9:15; Luke 5:35).

Celebrating Christ’s resurrection begins with embracing Christ’s suffering—and Lent is a chance for the global church, as his body, to do both.

New to Lent? Try these ideas.

1. Plan the service.

For my church community, Ash Wednesday services last about an hour, including a brief welcome and introduction to Lent, a couple contemplative songs, one or two Scripture readings, a brief homily, an introduction to the practice of receiving ashes, and a time for people to receive ashes on their forehead in the shape of a cross. This is followed by a time for reflection, perhaps on what it means to be marked by the cross, or on the practices individuals or the community will use throughout Lent (be it fasting once a week or engaging in acts of service to others). The Ash Wednesday service concludes with a couple more contemplative songs and a sending blessing.

On occasion, we have included more interactive practices. One year we laid a couple large, rugged wooden crosses on the altar and invited people to write directly on the wood with a felt pen what they wished to hand over to God in this season of repentance. The signed crosses were hung in our sanctuary for the duration of Lent, a visible reminder each week that we no longer bear these burdens. They are held by the One who is, in Christ, reconciling all things to himself (2 Cor 5:19).

2. Choose Bible passages.

When selecting Scripture readings for Ash Wednesday, the Common Lectionary can be a helpful starting point. Here are this year’s texts:

First reading
Joel 2:1–2, 12–17 or Isaiah 58:1–12

Psalm reading
Psalm 51:1–17

Second reading
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10

Gospel reading
Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21

One or more of these texts can be cut to fit your particular service. The Gospel text from Matthew invites reflection on what it means to practice Lent—be it fasting or otherwise—not out of a desire to be seen by others, but out of a heart that longs for greater intimacy with our crucified and resurrected Lord.

In the text from the prophet Joel, the community is called to an embodied repentance (“fasting, with weeping, and with mourning,” 2:12) and an inward turn to God (“rend your hearts and not your clothing,” 2:13). Ultimately, Joel reminds us that our God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13). This text invites us to ask how Lent can offer an extended time to practically, communally practice these two forms—inward and outward—of turning back to our God.

3. Strike the right tone.

For some people, Lent and Ash Wednesday seem unnecessarily somber. But this season and these practices of repentance ought not lead to despair. When practiced rightly, Lent invites us into a deeper hope. As Alexander Schmemann describes the “bright sadness” of Lent, it is here where we are trained to see “from far, far away—the destination: it is the joy of Easter,” and God’s boundless fount of mercy.


Learn more about Lent with these resources:

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