What’s the Point of Lent? #2: Jesus and the Early Church

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19 February 2014 by thaliakr

This is a mini-series leading up to Lent, which begins in 2014 on March 5. You might like to catch up on the first part, looking at fasting in the Old Testament, before reading this one. 

In the Old Testament, fasting is usually portrayed as a spontaneous response to what Scot McKnight calls a ‘sacred, grievous moment’.

By the time of Jesus, however, Jews were also doing regular ‘stationary’ fasting (meaning the whole community or ‘station’ did it together at the same time), twice a week. Jesus was challenged as to why his followers didn’t take part in the weekly round of fasting, so it seems to have been an expected part of Jewish culture.

Jesus did, however, famously fast for 40 days in the desert while preparing to make the career change from carpenter to Messiah.

Why fast at Lent? Jesus fasting, fasting in the early church, What's the point of Lent?Jesus never instituted Lent. It’s the combination of those three factors – responding to a sacred moment, regular Jewish fasting, and the 40-day fast of Jesus – that led to the Lenten fast of the early church.

We know from the important first century document, the ‘Didache‘ (short for ‘The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles’), that the early church did the normal Jewish stationary (community) fast – what Scot McKnight calls ‘body discipline’ fasting. This wasn’t a response to a grievous moment but a pattern of disciplining the body for spiritual growth, based on the Jewish practice, but moved to different days of the week to distinguish the church from majority Judaism.

We also know from the book of Acts that Paul fasted for the three days between his Damascus road conversion and being baptised. 

By the end of the first century, adult converts were encouraged to fast in the lead-up to their baptisms. Christians fasted twice a week and also for the morning or day until they shared the Eucharist (communion) on Sundays. By around the fourth century it was usual for converts to be baptised at Easter, and for those being baptised and their supporters to fast.

This three-way connection between Easter, baptism and fasting is one that is still strong in many parts of the world, but not in any of the churches I’m familiar with. What about where you are?

Sometime over these first few centuries of the church, a two-day fast in preparation for Easter Sunday itself – presumably this was some combination of the ‘response to a sacred moment’ fasting and a stationary, community fast – became a longer period. It varied from three weeks in Rome to seven in the Eastern church, but Scot McKnight describes a unified commitment to using Lent as:

a time of introspection, confession, penitence, and fasting to prepare for the miracle of forgiveness on Good Friday and its life-giving power on Easter. It was a time structured to respond to sin, to be purged of inordinate desires, to yearn for forgiveness, and to develop patterns of holy living.

Scot McKnight, Fasting, 93.

I really like that last phrase: to develop patterns of holy living. Lent wasn’t supposed to be a once-a-year thing that clears our debts with God so we can afford to lower our standards for the rest of the year. It’s supposed to be a time when we use our collective social energy to motivate us to make life changes that will last.

It’s like having a regular programme of training for a marathon. Every week you get stronger and faster, and run further. On the days you’re not running, you don’t slip backwards, you just get ready for the next push. We are supposed to become more and more like Christ each Lent, then spend the rest of the year consolidating that progress so we’re ready for the next level of training.

Another snippet from Scot (chapter 7): it was a huge no-no to fast on a Sabbath (Saturday) or Sunday (except for Easter Saturday, the only exception). Just as Jesus said that his followers were feasting while he was with them, and could fast later, the early church made time for both (more about this in the next post on Eastern Orthodox practice). It has never been traditional to keep fasting on a Sunday – probably only people doing a modern chocolate or coffee fast feel the need to be non-stop about it!

So here are some more things to learn from the practice of Jesus and the early church, to add to the principles from the Old Testament, and help us make reasoned decisions for our own modern practice of Lent:

Guiding Principles for Modern Lenten Practice

  1. Fasting is a response, not a means to an end (Old Testament pattern)
  2. Fasting needs to be connected to acts of compassion and generosity (Isaiah 58).
  3. Lent isn’t a holy blip in an indifferent year, but a training step that introduces patterns of holier living (Early Church practice).
  4. Lent, and the fasting that goes with it, is a community experience, where we help each other in this extra effort of focus (Jewish tradition and Early Church practice).
  5. Easter is serious business and should perhaps provoke a serious, bodily response from us (Early Church practice).
  6. Sundays in Lent are for feasting, not fasting (Early Church practice).

The next post looks at how Orthodox folks are called to mark Lent. You may be surprised by some of it – I certainly was.

I’m preparing a Lent series for Sacraparental, and now for a few friends’ churches, that is inspired by how my family celebrated Advent. Check it out here, and please feel free to let me know what you think, and what I can add or subtract to the plan.

Before Lent begins, though, it’s time to party on Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras :) so check out my Pancake Party post at Kiwi Families for ideas for celebrating with your neighbours. 

You can also see my Lent Pinterest board, and follow Sacraparental on Facebook for extra daily snippets. Come on over!

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8 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Lent? #2: Jesus and the Early Church

  1. Nicola says:

    Thanks for doing this series Thalia! It’s much appreciated!

    • You’re so welcome! I’m really enjoying it :)

      I’ve been struck by how little there is around the place (by which I mean the internet :) ) about Lent outside the Catholic church. Pretty indicative of reality, I suppose. So it’s good to host the conversation here!

      What are your young people thinking about Lent?

  2. […] next post will pick up at the time of Jesus and explore the beginnings of the early Christian practi…. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your […]

  3. Andy says:

    Will you be looking at how the reformers viewed lent?

    • Hi Andy,

      I actually hadn’t given it any thought. Are you interested?

      I was just at my (Baptist) theological college last week for a meeting and ducked into see if I could do some cheeky research into Lent while I was there. Basically nothing in the whole building!

      Here’s my understanding of the Reformers’ and the modern Reformed situation: the Reformers had a general back-to-biblical-basics approach, but were necessarily selective in what they retained from the Roman Catholic practices. Modern Lutheran and Presbyterian churches generally celebrate Lent in much the same way as modern Anglicans. Modern Anabaptist churches (Baptist, Brethren, etc) generally don’t celebrate Lent at all, seeing it as an addition to Scripture.

      There is a move among those latter churches to rediscover Lent, especially as it is now clear that the very earliest Christians had Lenten or proto-Lenten practices.

      There’s also a move among modern Reformed churches to move *away* from traditional practices of Lent, because they’re not laid out in Scripture. These days it’s more of a mild, ‘you’re not bound’ approach rather than the earlier ‘let’s get rid of anything that has a scent of Popery’ kind of approach.

      Is that the kind of thing you were thinking about? Any further thoughts?

      • Andy says:

        Kind of. Given the reformers are closer to where we come from theologically than the eastern orthodox, it would be good to understand why they landed where they did.

        Googling about a bit, it seems that lent was adiaphora (my favourite theological word of the moment) for Calvin, due to the superstition that had accrued around it. Given that we have largely lost mysticism, we could /should look again at lent without the strictures imposed by Rome. it would be interesting to muse on what he might have taught had there not been the accumulations of church tradition that Rome had added over the centuries.

        Lutherans are indeed still big on lent (got its own colour and part of the calendar).
        Pressies not so much, and probably not a recent departure based on our own church.

        It’s a hard line to tread to show that we still have liberty, we shoudl be growing in holiness. to keep from thinking that we somehow participate in christ’s suffering by what we do, or that this somehow merits us. that’s the hard thing.

        With the widespread apathy in the pews (me included), maybe some structure without stricture would be good.

  4. […] What’s the Point of Lent? #2: Jesus and the Early Church […]

  5. […] What’s the Point of Lent? #2: Jesus and the Early Church […]

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