No, Lent Isn't In The Bible. Here's Why It's A Good Thing Anyway
It barely seems five minutes since Christmas, but already the thoughts of Christians around the world are turning to Lent.
I know, I've already lost some people. Whenever I write about the seasons of the Church year, I get messages saying, 'It isn't biblical', 'It's just made up by man,' or 'Rituals won't save you, only Jesus will.'
Here's the thing – I know all of that (although Lent is of course based on the biblical story of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness).
Lent is a time that I've chosen to observe for the past few years. It has helped me to focus on Easter and the significance of the cross and resurrection anew.
You don't need that assistance? Great! But maybe hold your horses before condemning others who need a little help from the Church and the calendar to fully express and understand.
I think part of the antipathy towards Church seasons and especially Lent comes from the Protestant evangelical wing of the Church which sees little or no need for special days or seasons.
In addition, the Church in the rich West sees little need to focus on a particular time for fasting or feasting. Individual churches or Christians might choose a time to pray and fast but they don't see a need to do so along with other believers.
This is the outworking of an overly individualistic theology, which sees single Christians as having a relationship with God which is unmediated by anything or anyone else. Even though there is truth in this – we all need to respond to God individually – it actually ignores the reality that we're all shaped by our culture and conditions more than we might like to admit.
With this in mind, I was delighted to see that a successful project from the last few years is being brought back. Instead of focusing on fasting, 40 Acts aims to get Christians to do one of 40 generous acts each day during Lent.
The organisation says, 'Every day people are encouraged to 'give out' rather than the traditional Lenten practice of giving something up.'
Having spent the last few years giving up things I really like (listening to music, watching football etc) I was beginning to run out of ideas. 40 Acts is here to the rescue, though. Instead of a blanket suggestion to give things up, it helps Christians to think of a small way each day in which they can show kindness, creativity or compassion to someone else.
Simple things such as learning the name of the person who works in your local shop are placed alongside more challenging ideas such as committing to stop buying clothes for a year.
The attraction of 40 Acts is obvious. For those who are more activist than contemplative it is important to have something to actually do. For those who prefer a more ascetic approach, you are being pushed outside your comfort zone – which, after all, is part of the point of a season of abstention.
Taking up good habits, rather than giving something up, could be a great way to learn the discipline required to do Lent in a different way in future.
Those people who comment about how Lent is 'man made' or not in the Bible are correct on one level, of course. There's nothing about taking part that will leave your soul in a better condition than it was before. It isn't a test of orthodoxy – if you don't want to join in, then don't join in. The days when the Church could enforce participation are (happily) long gone.
It may, though, be worth looking beyond the immediate 'It isn't in the Bible so I don't care about it' response. There is wisdom to be gained from reflecting on ancient practice that has been shared by our Christian sisters and brothers, the great cloud of witnesses, for many generations.
By recognising the value of Lent as a special time of preparation for Easter, we aren't saying that the resurrection should be unimportant for the rest of the year. We're merely suggesting that sharing a specific 40 days could be life-giving for you. And if you take the advice of 40 Acts seriously, it could be life-giving for those around you, too.