Lent 101: A Guide to Understanding the History and Practices of Lent

BY: Kelly Soifer

 

by Kelly Soifer

For fifteen years I served as a youth pastor in an independent, non-denominational Bible church in California, and my early experience with Lent was always the same: on Ash Wednesday I would overhear girls telling one another on that they were going to give up chocolate or desserts for Lent, and boys making fun of people with ash marks on their foreheads, joking that the ash marks looked like bullet holes.

I would roll my eyes with impatience, year after year. I knew the girls were just coming up with another squirrelly diet idea and the boys…well, they were just being adolescent boys.

Finally I woke up and realized that perhaps, rather than throw up my hands in frustration that I could instead use this as a teachable moment. (I’m rolling my eyes at myself now at the thought…what took me so long?!)

Given my own spiritual background—or lack thereof, given that I grew up with no church involvement—I had to spend some time researching the history and practices of Lent. I’ll also admit to a peek or two at Wikipedia for good measure! Out of that experience, I came up with some ways to impart a bit of reverence, expectation, and spiritual application for Lent to our students.

A PDF handout is available for download at the top of the page.

Quick Quiz

a. Lent lasts:

b. Lent originally started as a time for people to collect the money they had lent throughout the year.     TRUE        FALSE

c. Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday”   TRUE     FALSE

d. What is the “purpose” of Mardi Gras?

e. Why do some people have ash marks on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday?

By and large, most students (and leaders) had very little knowledge about Lent and the spiritual disciplines preceding Easter.

A tradition from the history of Christianity

Ash Wednesday, the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday, is the first day of the Season of Lent. The word “lent” came from the Anglo-Saxon lencten meaning “Spring (season)” (Thank you, Wikipedia). The ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads serves as a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world. It places the worshipper in a position to realize the consequences of sin by leaving a noticeable mark on our lives, which is what sin does less obviously. Ash Wednesday is a somber day of reflection on what needs to change in our lives if we are to truly follow Christ.

Discussion Questions

As a group, come up with a way to explain the purpose of the ash mark in your own words. What if tomorrow was Ash Wednesday and you showed up at school with the ash mark on your forehead? How could you explain the reason you have it there?

As a group, go to an Ash Wednesday mass at a local Catholic church, just to see how another denomination marks the beginning of Lent.

Mardi Gras?

Huh? “Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday” in French, and is celebrated in a bunch of different ways all over the world. Plain and simple, it’s a wild party with the goal to “live it up” prior to the fasting season of Lent. Obviously, it has no spiritual meaning.

Discussion Questions

Is Mardi Gras a big deal in your community? If so, what are some godly, non-judgmental ways you could respond to Mardi Gras celebrations as a youth group?

Why do you think people have such a need to go to extremes like Mardi Gras right before they are supposedly going to focus on God?

Obviously, Mardi Gras is a human misunderstanding of the purpose of Lent and ultimately, Easter. How have you seen other Christian holidays twisted around by the world? Give examples.

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