Lent is upon us and soon will be over.
To many this may mean little. Perhaps there are past memories of giving up sodas or chocolate for Lent. Some may recall practicing this season with Catholic faithfulness, foregoing meat, repenting of various pleasures between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Those with more evangelical sympathies, however, traditionally have regarded Lent as another one of those means by which misled people try to earn their own righteousness through various attempts at good works, denying the reality of salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ.
But what did the church intend when Lent was begun? Not a period for self-mortification, hypocritical piety, and feigned righteousness designed to earn one's salvation. Rather, Lent originated in the church as a time to prepare new believers for their baptism. This occurred when the early church followed the custom of baptizing new believers into its fellowship once a year on Easter. Prior to their baptism, a period was set aside for instruction in the faith; so Lent's original purpose was for the making of disciples.
On Easter, when the church celebrated the resurrection of its Lord, it would also celebrate the baptism of these new believers. In their baptism, they would signify their death to the power of sin, and their call to be risen to new life with Christ who overcame the power of death on the first Easter. Lent, then, emerged as a time when new converts, as well as the whole body of believers, would grow in faithful discipleship.
As the observance of Lent continued in the church's history, it became traditionally characterized by three acts which typify the meaning of this time: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Observing Lent today can begin by understanding the continuing significance of these acts.
T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem, "Ash Wednesday":