Text: Luke 4:1-13
Lent is forty days of letting go of some of our normal habits in order to pursue God with a special focus. The pursuit of God during these forty days comes in various forms: repentance, meditation, Scripture reading, prayer, immersion in sacred music, communal worship, almsgiving, etc. Lent was originally named “Forty Days” (quadragesima) and only became known as “Lent” (meaning Spring) in later years.
Lent is a season where we, in some sense and to some degree, follow Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. We followed Jesus into the waters of baptism and so now, in the narrative of Luke, we follow Jesus into the wilderness. Before Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God (Exodus 32; Deuteronomy 9:9), Israel spent forty years in the wilderness where God probed and tested their hearts (Deuteronomy 8:1-5) and Elijah devoted forty days to God at Mt. Sinai (1 Kings 9:8).
It is not surprising, then, that the ancient church decided “forty” was a good number for a season of renewed dedication to God. The roots of this practice are baptismal, though there are also penitential backgrounds where those seeking reunion with the community fasted for a period of time. Those preparing for baptism would spend a specified time (usually three days or 40 hours) fasting. As Easter Eve became an annual baptism festival, the practice of “forty days” of preparation emerged. Eventually, the whole church was invited to fast for forty days before Easter (late fourth century). The form of this fasting varied and was not necessarily a total fast on every day of the forty. Indeed, the tradition arose that Sundays during Lent were “mini-Easters” which celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and thus were not fast days. Consequently, “Ash Wednesday” arose in the West (probably eighth century) as a way of adding days to compensate for the loss of fast days due to Sunda. This kept the number of fast days at forty. It is called “Ash” Wednesday because ashes are used as symbols of penitence and death as we humble ourselves in preparation for the Forty Days.
The Forty Days, most significantly, connects believers with the life of Jesus as they join Jesus in the wilderness in some small measure. Just as Jesus was led to fast for forty days, so believers seek to follow Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. It is a specified time dedicated to seeking God. It was valuable for Jesus, and many believers find it valuable for their own relationship with the Father.
Though Jesus had regular habits of spiritual discipline (e.g., being alone with God), it was nevertheless important for Jesus to experience these forty days as a way of probing his own heart, being tested by Satan, and hungering after God. We, too, need special moments, days or seasons to devote ourselves to probing, testing and hungering. Lent is a season which many believers choose to practice for this very purpose.
What did Jesus discover about himself in these days of probing, testing and hungering? He learned existentially what perhaps he only knew provisionally or intellectually previously. He learned to feed on the word of God rather than bread. He learned that devotion to God is more important than power among the nations. He learned trusting God rather than testing God is the way to peace and joy. He experienced the wilderness—he experienced his faith in action as he connected with the Father and his own soul.
He had other options. Satan provided opportunity and attempted persuasion. But Jesus chose God. He quoted Scripture, but the effect of quoting Scripture was not the cognitive information he articulated. Rather, Scripture pointed to God. Jesus hungered for God rather than food, power or fame.
Jesus chose the way of the cross rather than the spectacular, the power and the luxury. He owned his baptismal vocation when he rejected the Satanic offers and embraced his identity as Son of God.
Lent is an opportunity, not an obligation. No one is forced to practice the Forty Days. We are led into it for the sake of embracing our vocational identity as children of God. These are days when we seek and hunger after God; days when we spend time with Jesus in the wilderness; days when we, too, may discover again our own souls, own our baptism and encounter God anew.
- Read the text of Luke 4:1-13 slowly several times. What are the significant lines and repeated ideas in the text?
- How do you think Jesus experienced the different temptations or testings? What was the draw or allure of each?
- What do you think Jesus “learned” through this experience? Why was it important for the Spirit to lead Jesus into the wilderness? Why do we need wildernesses in our own faith journey?
- How does Lent pattern itself after Jesus’ own experience? How does this deepen the significance and importance of Lent for those who choose to practice it? How is Lent similar and dissimilar to the experience of Jesus?