What are you giving up for Lent?

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
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“What did you give up for Lent?” That’s the question many people will ask each other when they gather together for fellowship around the coffee table covered with donuts and other treats. Some will say they’ve given up chocolate or TV or their favorite daily coffee treat. Others may say that it isn’t about what they have given up, but what they are going to do – maybe it’ll be more Bible study or early morning devotions or volunteering at a soup kitchen once a week. Many people will look at the season of Lent as a second chance at successfully completing their forsaken New Year’s resolution. But that is not the intended  purpose of this season of fasting.

The penitential season of Lent is a season of the Christian Church year in which faithful disciples observe the forty days Jesus fasted and prayed while he was in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry. Many Christian believers will fast during this time and although fasting usually refers to any practice of restricting food, there is a distinction in the Church between fasting (limiting food to one full meal a day, with two smaller meals allowed) and abstinence (abstaining from eating meat.) Abstinence from meat one day a week is a universally recognized act of penitence.

Lent is a very personal time for individuals, so most Protestant Churches do not have “official” statements on how an individual should observe Lent.  For instance, the church doesn’t say that everyone has to fast.  People may choose other ways of observing acts of penance, but as Christian believers we should not  neglect to do so either. The value of self-denial can be learned very early in a person’s life. “Lent provides an excellent opportunity to teach children the necessity of self-denial in our permissive society.” A spirit of fasting can include limiting personal daily luxuries such as chocolate or TV or your favorite daily coffee treat! We can give away clothing and/or personal possessions to those in need or do Bible study, early morning devotions or volunteering at a soup kitchen. Whenever possible we can, and should, pray more often alone or with family members so that we may grow in our relationship with God. (You can check back here tomorrow for a list of suggestions for personal Lenten practices.)

Several years ago Ted Olsen of Christianity Today wrote an article that summarized the history of many known Lent practices of the church. Much of it is quoted below, I hope you find it interesting as I did:

Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Like all Christian holy days and holidays, it has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same: self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. Early church father Irenaus of Lyons (c.130-c.200) wrote of such a season in the earliest days of the church, but back then it lasted only two or three days, not the 40 observed today.

In 325, the Council of Nicea discussed a 40-day Lenten season of fasting, but it’s unclear whether its original intent was just for new Christians preparing for Baptism, but it soon encompassed the whole Church.

How exactly the churches counted those 40 days varied depending on location. In the East, one only fasted on weekdays. The western church’s Lent was one week shorter, but included Saturdays. But in both places, the observance was both strict and serious. Only one meal was taken a day, near the evening. There was to be no meat, fish, or animal products eaten.

Until the 600s, Lent began on Quadragesima (Fortieth) Sunday, but Gregory the Great (c.540-604) moved it to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday, to secure the exact number of 40 days in Lent—not counting Sundays, which were feast days. Gregory, who is regarded as the father of the medieval papacy, is also credited with the ceremony that gives the day its name. As Christians came to the church for forgiveness, Gregory marked their foreheads with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19).

By the 800s, some Lenten practices were already becoming more relaxed. First, Christians were allowed to eat after 3 p.m. By the 1400s, it was noon. Eventually, various foods (like fish) were allowed, and in 1966 the Roman Catholic church only restricted fast days to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It should be noted, however, that practices in Eastern Orthodox churches are still quite strict.

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