by Declan Hurley
Lent is a forty-day period of charitable works, prayer, and fasting beginning on Ash Wednesday that more than a billion Christians worldwide observe in anticipation of Easter Sunday. In short, Lent is an opportunity for Christians to renew their relationship with God, elevating it to new heights just as Christ resurrected Lazarus from the dead in Bethany (John 11:38). The theological underpinnings for Lent and the manner in which many Christians practice it are the subjects of this ecumenical article.
At the center of Christianity is Jesus Christ, God incarnate, who was born into privation in Bethlehem, Roman Judea. Materially rich and physically imposing Christ was not. Instead of receiving supplicants at a lofty throne, He spent his life ministering to commoners at the fringes of the Roman Empire, performing miracles for people’s spiritual benefit, such as raising Lazarus from the dead, and demonstrating humility, such as washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:16). Christ and His teachings—namely, that man should place God first and love his neighbors as himself—suffered scornful human mockery, causing such a clamor in Judea that Roman authorities crucified Him on Good Friday in the same manner that the empire used to execute thieves. Lent encapsulates the life that Christ led on earth, one of humble and sacrificial service trained toward God, and encourages Christians to spend forty days intently emulating it.
The biblical narrative underpinning the duration of Lent embodies the season’s focus on Jesus’s humble life. For forty days, Christ wandered in the desert, having been drawn there by the Holy Spirit “to be tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:2, Matt. 4:1). As Thomas Aquinas writes in Summa Theologica, Christ demonstrated in this period that denying temptation is essential to faith forma tion, provided an example for withstanding temptation, and undertook Himself the rejec tion of worldly pleasures He demands humans endure. Christ’s time in the desert was marked by fasting, as many Christians choose to observe during the Lent season: Luke notes that Christ “ate nothing in those days; and when they were ended, he was hungry” (4:2).
Despite Jesus’s material deprivation, He rejected the entreaties of the devil, who encouraged Christ to convert stones into bread, offered Him worldly glory and authority, and suggested that He prove Himself by jumping from a ledge to prove His possession of God’s protection. The devil’s wiles were utterly useless against Christ, who placed His confidence in God the Father instead of earthly idols, and Satan “departed from [Christ] until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). In similar fashion, Christians set aside the period of Lent for self-purification, hoping to strengthen their relationship with God so that its integrity can withstand all temptation. Moreover, immediately after suffering temptation by Satan in the desert, Christ launched into ministry, pouring Himself into service of God (Luke 4:14). Christians during Lent similarly engage in charitable work under the banner of almsgiving.
How do these Lenten concepts manifest them selves practically? During this forty-day period, Christians might aim to make their prayer life more regular, asking for God’s assistance in resisting temptation, and thus renew their relationship with Him. Additionally, practicing alms giving may include volunteer service, such as distributing food at a soup kitchen, and financial contributions to a church or local charitable organizations with the ultimate goal of spreading the Gospel message through service. Financial giving is only one way to engage in this type of service, however. For sleep-deprived UChicago students, the gift of time may be a more meaningful sacrifice than the gift of money. Fasting—the third major obligation of the Lenten season—puts humans in Christ’s shoes, as they partake in a narrow slice of the suffering He endu red. This practice amplifies their commitment to God by enlivening their prayer life, since God’s help is necessary in resisting the temptations of a serious fast, and gives them an opportunity to correct personal deficiencies that complicate their relationship with God. Fasts could include the rejection of alcohol, which for some is linked to gluttony and the Christ-subsuming suspension of rationality, and tobacco, which corrodes the principle that the “body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Cor. 6:19). Others may reject social media, which tends toward narcissism, intemperateness, and sloth and, furthermore consumes time that could otherwise be spent praying, engaging in charitable works, and reading about the Christian faith. And others might deny them selves caffeine, given that the stimulant is so addictive that not using it is an incredibly difficult fast—and because caffeine supplants God as the most essential stimulant of human life and creativity.
What Christians ultimately choose to give up reflects their personal walk with God and thus varies according to the unique state of their hearts. Thus, fasting during Lent is different from a New Year’s resolution because it is primarily God-oriented: true fasting strengthens Chris
tians’ connection with their Creator by allowing them to walk in Christ’s shoes, necessitating an active prayer life, and reducing habits which separate them from God.
To synthesize the Lenten obligations of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving on the bedrock of the season’s biblical foundations, Lent is a time in which Christians actively withstand tempta
tions and emulate Christ’s suffering by subjec ting themselves to fasting; pray to God for His assistance in withstanding those temptations, thereby renewing their relationship with Him and ensuring its permanence; and, in partaking in a rich prayer life, infuse themselves with the Chris tian faith and its orientation toward charity, which reflects man’s love for his neighbor. Thus, Lent is a time in which Christians’ faith, renewing itself just as Christ resurrected Lazarus from the dead, grows and flourishes in a way that could not occur without the mindfulness and intentionality of this forty-day period.