Lent means lengthening. It is named for the time of the year in which the days are lengthening. It is the season of the church year that counts down to Easter.
Liturgically speaking, it is the time of the church calendar that is focused upon the life of Christ from when he sets his face towards Jerusalem until his Crucifixion.
Lent is not always an easy thing to know what to do with. The five evangelical feast days of the church calendar, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Thursday, and Pentecost are easy to celebrate. They are memorializing the great victories that God himself has won in the work of Christ. The church seasons (Trinity Season, Advent, Lent) are different kinds of memorials. They are intended to remind us to continually live out of the Good News of what Jesus has already done. And they are the vestiges of the victories of the church.
Lent was established to fight a battle. Every festival of the Roman Empire is forgotten. Lent is still here. The gospel advances. The gospel transforms the world. And Lent is the evidence.
The gospel came into a world that had turned itself into an idol. In the ancient world power, strength, and control over the world and over other people were the ingredients of salvation.
In ancient paganism (and modern evolutionary mythology), violence was fundamental. In the beginning there was chaos. And everything is always threatening to revert to chaos. Mankind must be strong enough to fight back the chaos. We take control over the world with strength. We control other people in wars and battles. With power we fight back the chaos. Our hold on the world was idolatry. We claimed to have mastered the world. But really the world had a hold on us.
Lent was the early church’s denial that power gained over the world was the power save ourselves. Through self-denial, by turning away from power and turning to weakness, the church proved that in our weakness, God’s strength is shown. The weakness of a faithful people was stronger than the strength of all the empires that idolized strength.
Like the bronze serpent that Moses put up as a memorial in Israel, Lent began as a fight against idols, but later became itself as idol. And like Hezekiah cutting down and burning the bronze serpent (1 Kings 18:4) faithful people removed lent from the life of the church for a time.
But though it was misused and turned into an idol, Jesus later came and told us that the bronze serpent pointed to him in John 3:14. So Lent, which began as a time devoted to the setting aside of paganism, became itself a means of power mongering and self-righteous idolatry.
And yet, Lent has survived. And it has survived as evidence that the good news of Jesus Christ has overcome idolatry, continues to overcome idolatry, and will overcome idolatry until every enemy is put under the feet of Jesus. And so, whether we celebrated it or ignored it, because Jesus overcame the strength of the idols of the world with his weakness, it has been Lent. Now let's have some Easter.