The Purposes and Disciplines of Lent

Over the course of each week during Lent...

Dr. Junius Johnson will bring us weekly reflections and guide us in discovering the practices and principles that amount to lifelong discipleship.

Every year for 17 centuries, in the 46 days leading up to Easter, the church has set aside a season to prepare for the rejoicing that is Easter. Practices have differed during that time, and so there is no one right way to observe Lent. But there are patterns and principles. What I want to do over the course of the next 7 weeks is to look closely at these practices and principles, with the hope that you will find inspiration for your own walk of discipleship.

Lent as Drama

The very first thing I want to underscore is that Lent is a drama. This means that we are enacting something, but that it is, in some sense, pretending. Lent is a great “as if.” We act as if we didn’t know that the work of Easter is already accomplished, as if our sins had not already been forgiven in that all-sufficient sacrifice, as if there were still any room for doubt that the grace of God can conquer our weakness and wickedness. Lent is a big counter-factual exercise.

We do this because by abiding in the space of our need we awaken deeper gratitude for our rescue. If we go too quickly too often from “I am a sinner” to “I am forgiven,” we can miss the cost of the forgiveness, and the incalculable value of it, and the scandal that it should apply to wretches such as ourselves. And if we miss these things, we run the risk of not seeing how truly horrendous our sin is, which makes it easier for us to repeat it or remain in it.

And yet, however much we may immerse ourselves in a play or movie at the theater, we never really forget that we are at the theater. In the same way, however diligently we bend our minds to the rigors of the Lenten drama, we never forget Easter.  This is what makes Lent bearable, what makes it discipline rather than torture: because we know the ending. We are not watching this movie for the first time, this is a favorite movie that we are coming back to once again. But in the process of this pretending, we make clearer to ourselves and others what the cost of discipleship really is.

The Three Purposes of Lent

Traditionally, Lent can be seen to have had three main purposes: consecration, reconciliation, and initiation.

Lent is a season of consecrating our lives to Christ. “Consecrate” means, etymologically, to make some created thing holy by giving it over to the holy deity. In the Latin cum that hides under the English prefix “con-” we see indicated a participation in the holiness to which the created thing is devoted. Lent is a time to pursue deeper participation in the holiness of God as offered to us in Christ.

Lent is also a time of reconciliation. In the first instance, this means reconciliation to the church: it is a time for those guilty of notorious sins to undergo rigorous repentance in order to be readmitted to the fellowship of the faithful. The adulterer, the murderer, and the one who failed to confess Christ under persecution can all look to Lent as a time of Jubilee that is greater than their sin. They walk the most bitter via dolorosa, but, like those whose sins are no less severe for being less known, their only hope is to arrive at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. But in the second instance, Lent is also a time for reconciliation with one another: it is the time to do the hard spiritual work of forgiving, even where forgiveness is not deserved (for that is how we are forgiven), and of restoring broken relationships.

Thirdly, Lent is a time of initiation. Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday) was a time of baptizing new converts. To be ready for that, they walked a path of preparation during Lent. Because this was public, the entire church walked that path with them, and experienced again the joys of conversion.

The Disciplines of Lent

The first and most famous discipline of Lent is fasting. Originally this meant fasting from most meals and from certain foods entirely. In modern practice, Christians often give up a particular food, or even something that is not food, such as a media fast, an entertainment fast, etc.

The idea is to create an absence in your life that you will fill with prayer and that will remind you to pray.

Prayer is the second discipline of Lent. Lent is meant to be a time of dedicated prayer, and so the idea is to pray more than you normally would, to set aside new prayer times. Just as fasting has been interpreted allegorically as giving something up, so praying has been interpreted allegorically as taking something on. New devotional practices or personal disciplines are often used to fill this role.

Note that in these first two, prayer and fasting, you have the power to drive out even the worst of demons, the kind whom Jesus said only come out by prayer and fasting (Mt 17:21). This is fitting: Lent is about transformation, it is about the breaking of bondage, it is about the birth of hope in the place where despair reins most sovereignly.

It must be about these things, because it is about the accomplished work of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead.

The final discipline of Lent, and too often overlooked, is almsgiving. Almsgiving completes the work of the first two, and assaults a bastion in the soul that very much needs to be pulled down: the bastion of miserliness and the idol of trust in what we can provide for ourselves. It not only lifts up those who have fallen on hard times, it also restores us to the position of trusting God for our daily bread.

The Limits of Lent

Over the next 6 weeks I will be exploring each of these themes in more detail. I encourage you to incorporate them all into your Lenten planning, and as we come to them, my reflections will not so much tell you what to do as offer some insight into what you have been doing.

There is one more aspect of Lent I want to underscore, and this one is too-little known: its limits. Lent begins 46 days before Easter, but it is only 40 days long. This is because it doesn’t include Sundays. Every Sunday on the Christian calendar is a festival of the resurrection of the Lord, and this overrides even Lent. Whatever fasts you take on are not to be held to on Sundays. Lent is not one continuous season, but is continually interrupted by the rejoicing of Sunday. In this way, as I have already said, we never forget Easter, and our play, though serious as the cross, is still play. And so I urge you not only to embrace the rigors of Lent, but also the feasts that set boundaries to it.

Junius Johnson is an independent scholar, teacher, musician, and writer. He is the executive director of Junius Johnson Academics, through which he offers innovative classes for both children and adults that aim to marry the sense of wonder with intellectual rigor. An avid devotee of story, he is especially drawn to fantasy, science fiction, and young adult novels. He performs professionally on the french horn and electric bass. He holds a BA from Oral Roberts University (English Lit), an MAR from Yale Divinity School (Historical Theology), and an MA, two MPhils, and a PhD (Philosophical Theology) from Yale University. He is the author of 4 books, including The Father of Lights: A Theology of Beauty. An engaging speaker and teacher, he is a frequent guest contributor to blogs and podcasts on faith and culture, and is a member of The Cultivating Project.  Explore his work at
Note: Guest bloggers share their own thoughts as classical educators and learners and do not represent or Classical Academic Press. 

Find Scholé Communities on ClassicalUFacebook !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *