Life embodied in Lent

“As St. Paul says: ‘You cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all your self-indulgent passions and desires…’ This crucifixion, I repeat, is something that must continue throughout our life, not for forty days only… It is not a simple matter of living through forty days; Lent is the epitome of our whole life.”

— Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 205

For all his days, man must fight a perpetual battle against his own flesh. Our personal ambitions and earthly affections threaten constantly to overwhelm all impulse to look upon heavenly things. The cross that we have been charged with carrying slips easily from our shoulders. We know we are meant to carry daily, but we only see the heavenly “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and our present reality seems all the more urgent and clear. As the cross falls, we brush it and its heavenly demands away eagerly.

We ought to instead die to self daily by crucifying our own desires and setting our minds on what is above (Colossians 3:2)—and particularly so during this season of preparation and penitence. The Church’s celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection approaches, and Lent has begun.

Different forms of “Lent”—which simply means “lengthening,” as in the lengthening of days during springtime—have been observed throughout the history of the Church. The early Church certainly knew their own sin as intimately as the modern Church; they accordingly established a season that follows examples of self-denial laid out by Christ and the Old Testament faithful in the Scriptures.

Jesus, despite His own perfection, sought time with the Lord. For example, “Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16). Each of the four Gospels depict Jesus’ habit of prayer, as well as His forty-day fast in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). Both Moses and Elijah also fasted for forty days. Indeed, forty is a biblically significant number: recall Israel’s forty years in the wilderness and Noah’s forty days and nights on the ark, among other examples. It could perhaps symbolize transformation or refinement, which is beautifully fitting for Lent. 

The Old Testament depicts many other instances of sorrowful fasting., “‘Even now,’” declares the Lord in the book of Joel, “‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel 2:12-13).

The early Church combined these spiritual practices with their desire to prepare their hearts during the first celebrations of Lent. Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202 AD) explained the differing approaches to pre-Easter fasting: “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers.”[1]

Lent was formalized as a forty-day period sometime between Irenaeus and the council of Nicea in 325, which acknowledged a semi-modern version of the season.[2] There have been some adjustments since that point, including Gregory the Great’s move of the start of the season to a Wednesday, now called Ash Wednesday.[3] Reformers also protested against some believers’ legalistic and prideful observation of the fast[4], but the intent of encouraging penitence and self-denial has largely withstood two thousand years of change.

Many contemporary Christians neglect this season completely, and therefore lose a much-needed opportunity to invigorate their prayer lives and freshly repent of sins. Until recently, I was included in this number.

We must always carry our crosses, but I think we ought to focus on it all the more particularly now, in solemn preparation for the celebration of the very locus around which our faith revolves: Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we do not truly consider this, we run the risk of becoming spiritually indifferent to the solemn—and victorious!—nature of Easter.

Christ’s work on the cross is not a lighthearted thing, and celebration of it should be founded in individual penitence, which pleases the Lord and inspires greater love and reverence for Him. Paul tells the Ephesians to “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former way of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, [and be] renewed in the spirit of your minds, and [put on] the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

This putting off of the old self is living penitently, and when one lives like the old self—in perpetual sin—the Holy Spirit is grieved. Lent, as a specific, biblically grounded period of prayer and fasting, or at the very least, renewed repentance, encourages us to prepare once more our hearts and minds to bear our crosses.

In other words, it helps us to look to the heavenly rather than the earthly for our sustenance. Moses reminds the people of Israel that the Lord “humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

Jesus, hungry after fasting for forty days, quotes this verse in response to Satan’s temptation (Matthew 4:4). Fasting, combined with prayer, denies us the matter which sustains our lives—of course we are more sharply reminded that the Lord Himself is our true sustenance when we abstain from this physical sustenance. Our hearts are rent from the things of this world.

Augustine says, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the Spirit, rends the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fires of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”[5] This continual battle of Spirit versus fallen nature, as well as personal passions versus death to oneself, is indeed the very essence of our lives as believers. The Lenten struggle and preparation is precisely the battle we must always fight, and in this sense, Lent is the most poignant expression of our existence. I think that is beautiful, and I do not think the Church values this deeply enough.

I pray that we embark on this season of self-denial together, as the body of Christ, so that we may love each other more selflessly, receive the fullness of the Spirit, and experience the awesome beauty of losing oneself and finding Christ. This communal act of introspection will enable us to go out into the world as lights afresh, bearing the “aroma of heaven.”[6]

So, in accordance with the Church’s long tradition of preparing for Easter in humility and self-denial, and in an effort to turn our eyes to the heavenly things toward which our souls should always reach, the Penn Epistle will be sharing forty daily devotionals meditating on gospel truths for each day of Lent. We hope that we will all be refined by genuine conviction and revitalized communion with God.

Whether you fast during this season or not, I encourage you to prepare your heart for the celebration of your Savior’s death on the cross and His victorious resurrection through repentance, prayer, and reflection with us. Lent is, ultimately, the epitome of our whole life, and the carrying of our crosses ought to be a communal endeavor. 

Notes

[1] Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24; also see https://aleteia.org/2019/03/11/what-was-lent-like-in-the-early-church/.

[2] Britannica, “Lent,” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lent.

[3] Christianity Today, “The Beginning of Lent,” https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/beginning-of-lent.html.

[4] Slate, “Get Lent,” https://slate.com/human-interest/2006/02/protestants-do-the-sober-season.html.

[5] Augustine, On Prayer and Fasting.

[6] Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020) 22.

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