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Lent is traditionally described as lasting for 40 days, in commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, before beginning his public ministry, during which he endured temptation by Satan. - Wikipedia

I included this Wikipedia quote only because it was easiest and really seems to reflect a near universal consensus on the symbolic purpose of the Lenten season. Various traditions practice Lent differently and some do not practice at all but the underlying Scriptural basis appears to be agreed upon among those who do.

The three synoptic gospels use 3 different words which carry different degrees of intensity to describe Jesus departing into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit:

Mat 4:1  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Mar 1:12  The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

Luk 4:1  And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness

Two things immediately jump out: First, Jesus did not go into the wilderness of His own accord but was taken there (led or driven) by the Holy Spirit and, second, He was taken there for the purpose of being tempted (more accurately tested) by the devil.

Since there is unanimity in the Scriptural basis of the practice but differences in the application of the practice I am wondering if there is unanimity in the spiritual, motivational desire.

Are Lenten practitioners attempting to enter into Jesus' experience of having been led or driven by the Holy Spirit into deprivation to be tested by the devil or is it more of a ritual of remembrance?

  • @KorvinStarmast Given it's tagged biblical-basis, could it be rephrased to be explicitly that. "What is the biblical basis for following the practice of lent?" or something similar, assuming that expresses the intent of OP – Korosia Feb 26 '20 at 14:00
  • @Korosia Good question, I am not voting nor suggesting a close at the moment, because I think only Mike can clear this up. While he cites Scripture as a basis for Lent, and tradition, the question seems to be asking about "Lenten Practice" in a general sense. I am not sure biblical basis fits that. – KorvinStarmast Feb 26 '20 at 14:03
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    @KorvinStarmast I agree with you here. The question has to be tweaked somewhat, in order to avoid an opinion based response. – Ken Graham Feb 26 '20 at 22:52
  • I've edited the question to accommodate the comments as best I could. I'm not sure I will be able to target this question adequately because Lenten practitioners are in so many traditions. Thanks for the help. – Mike Borden Feb 27 '20 at 0:07
  • Mike, we might be in a situation where you need to ask this on a "by denomination" basis in three or four questions. If I answer for the Catholic approach, and then another person answers from the United Methodist approach, we then get into a "popularity contest" between faith communities style of voting which isn't the purpose of this site. I'd suggest you pick a few denominations that interest you and ask two or t hree or four questions, basic text as per above, seeking that faith communities take on it. (I did that with Salvation vs Justification: four questions on the same topic – KorvinStarmast Feb 27 '20 at 17:13
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What are the fundamental motivations of the "Lenten Practices"?

Not all denominations observe Lent! There are a few fundamental motivations for partaking in the Lenten observation.

  • Preparation spiritually for celebrating the sacred paschal mysteries of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
  • Imitating Our Lord Jesus Christ who gave us the example of how to fast during his temptation in the desert.
  • It is a time for spiritual renewal, through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other forms of Lenten practice.

No doubt the most Christians will be in accord with the fact that Lent is a time for preparing ourselves for the great contemplation for paschal mysteries which will be celebrated during Holy Week and Easter Sunday!

Lent is a solemn religious observance in the Christian liturgical calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later, before Easter Sunday. The purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer for Easter through prayer, doing penance, mortifying the flesh, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and self-denial. This event is observed in the Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, Presbyterian, Oriental Orthodox, Reformed, and Roman Catholic Churches. Some Anabaptist and evangelical churches also observe the Lenten season. Lent (Wikipedia)

Although some denominations do not fast, many do such as Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and so on. The traditional ways to prepare for Easter is through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Prayer: Without prayer, fasting and almsgiving are merely actions we do out of tradition without much meaning. Prayer is our conversation with God. It is through prayer that we find the strength to fast. It is through prayer that we develop a closer, more intimate relationship with God. This relationship makes us so grateful for the blessings he has bestowed upon us, that we eagerly give to those less fortunate than us. The Church, in its wisdom, understands that prayer is essential to any action we Christians may undertake.

Fasting: Fasting is one of the most ancient actions linked to Lent. Fasting rules have changed through the ages, but throughout Church history fasting has been considered sacred. The prophet Isaiah insists that fasting without changing our behavior is not pleasing to God. Therefore, the goal of fasting is linked with prayer. The pangs of hunger remind us of our hunger for God, and prayer and fasting together brings us to what Lent is about - a deeper conversion.

Almsgiving: It should be obvious by now, that almsgiving is simply a response by us to God, a response that we have come to through prayer and fasting. It is an expression of our gratitude for all that God has given us, and a realization that in the Body of Christ, it is never just "me and God." Through prayer and fasting we come to a deeper understanding that the needs of all are the responsibility of all in the Body of Christ. Works of charity and the promotion of justice are integral elements of the Christian way of life we began when we were baptized.

Why are prayer, fasting and almsgiving especially important during Lent?

It should be noted that Lent is not universally observed throughout Christendom.

In the Anglican churches The Book of Common Prayer prescribes that Lent be observed with fasting. In Lutheran and many other Protestant churches Lent is observed with various services and practices, though Lent is not formally observed in many Evangelical or nondenominational churches. - Lent (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Christians who strengthen their faith with the three traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are truly preparing themselves for the great events of Christ’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday. These are not the only practices Christians do during Lent.

More information may be gleaned from the following articles:

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    Thanks. This may require another question but, is Lenten participation required in Roman Catholicism? – Mike Borden Feb 27 '20 at 12:56
  • @MikeBorden it is expected; "required" is unenforceable. – KorvinStarmast Feb 27 '20 at 17:18
  • @MikeBorden It is definitely a separate question, but as already mentioned attendance to these liturgical days is not required, but definitely encouraged. Remember too that attendance at Church on fast days could force the faithful to eat their unique meal of the day quite late. Many could not do this physically because of work. I have and it is not always the most prudent thing to do. But then that is my opinion on the matter. – Ken Graham Feb 28 '20 at 0:07
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Dorotheus of Gaza, a 6th century Palestinian monk, summarized how the pre-Schism Christians of the 1st millennium understood Lent:

God gave us these holy days so that by repentance, a man may be cleansed of the sins of the whole year and the soul relieved of its burden. Purified he goes forward to the holy day of Resurrection [i.e. Easter, or Pascha as it is known in the east], and being made a new man through the change of heart induced by the fast, he can take his part in the Holy Mysteries and remain in spiritual joy and happiness, feasting with God the whole fifty days [i.e. during Pentecost](On the Holy Lenten Fast).

Another question somewhere deals with the history of the Lenten fast, but in short it is quite ancient and likely a fusion of two different early Christian practices:

  • A short fast of one or two days just prior to Easter Sunday dating back to at least the 2nd century1
  • A much longer fast of 40 days that had come into practice by the time of the 1st Nicene Council in 325 that originally had been practiced for the sake of catechumens about to be received into the faith through Baptism2.

Kalistos Ware, an Eastern Orthodox Metropolitan, in his article "The True Nature of Fasting" contrasts, obviously from an eastern perspective, how the Fast (i.e. Lent) is practiced by Christians today:

Just as the children of Israel ate the bread of affliction (Deut 16:3) in preparation for Passover, so Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of the New Passover by observing a fast. But what is meant by this word "fast" (Greek nisteia)? Here the utmost care is needed, so as to preserve a proper balance between the outward and the inward. On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting has always an inward and unseen purpose. The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy.

The second tendency is doubtless the more prevalent in our own day ... In Western Christendom over the past five hundred years, the physical requirements of fasting have been steadily reduced, until by now they are little more than symbolic ... One reason for this decline in fasting is surely a heretical attitude towards human nature, a false "spiritualism" which rejects or ignores the body, viewing man solely in terms of his reasoning brain.3 As a result, many contemporary Christians have lost a true vision of man as an integral unity of the visible and the invisible; they neglect the positive role played by the body in the spiritual life, forgetting St. Paul's affirmation: Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit ... glorify God with your body (1 Cor 6:19-20).


1. See, e.g. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History V.XXIV.12.
2. K. Ware, The Lenten Triodion, p.30
3. In his book, Orthodox Psychotherapy, Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos writes: "After the fall came the dying and death of the soul. Reason was raised above the soul and now holds sway in fallen man. Overnourished reason is the source of great abnormality in the spiritual organism. Arrogance, with all the energies of egoism, which is the source of the abnormality, is raging there."

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