Gloria Dei Lutheran Church

Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

5415 Raleigh-LaGrange Road

Memphis, TN 38134

Rev. Jim Turriff, Pastor


Please join us this Sunday

Bible Hour for all ages 9:00AM - Sep. through May

Worship Service 10:15AM

What Is Lent?*

What is Lent?  In brief and direct terms, Lent is a time when we reflect on our own sinfulness, the need for a savior, and the atoning and redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sinners.  The word “Lent” does not appear in the Bible and was not celebrated by the original Church. Therefore, God does not command us to celebrate a period of time called Lent.  However, through the years the idea of Lent has evolved to the present 40-day celebration that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with the Saturday before Easter Sunday.  As early as the 2nd century AD, the Christian author, Tertullian, wrote about the practices of the Church.  At that time, he recorded that Lent lasted for only 40 hours, stretching from the afternoon of Good Friday until Easter Sunday morning.  A century later, Lent had been extended through all of Holy Week.  The first reference to Lent being 40 days long comes from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Why Lent evolved to be 40 days in length is not known.  Many Church leaders and scholars consider the reason to be the fact that Jesus, immediately following His baptism in the River Jordan, fasted in the wilderness for 40 days (Matt. 4:1-11).  Although that could be the reason, in fairness, the number 40, a number that carries Biblical significance, is recorded 146 times in the Scriptures. Therefore, selecting 40 days for the length of Lent may be related more to the religious significance of the number than any particular historical Biblical occurrence.  In fact, a quick look at the calendar will reveal that the time from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday is actually 46 days.  Six Sundays occur during Lent, which are conveniently excluded to make the length equal to 40 days.  So, from these facts alone, we have to conclude that the length of Lent must be of less significance than its purpose.

Like the length of Lent, its purpose has changed over time also.  For the Council of Nicaea, Lent was a time of preparation for baptism.  All baptisms were performed once a year on Easter, and baptismal candidates were subjected to an intense period of instruction and preparation during Lent.  As time passed, Lent came to be known more and more as a season of reconciliation.  So, those who were already baptized, but had committed serious sins, spent the days of Lent performing penance.  Practices such as fasting, giving up a worldly pleasure, and applying ashes in the shape of a cross on the forehead were embraced as ways people could show others that they were serious about penance.  Since performing penances is not commanded in Holy Scripture, or even implied indirectly, Lutherans are not obligated to observe such behaviors during Lent.  We have the Christian freedom to do what we consider beneficial to our faith whether during Lent or at any other time.  If we engage in penitent practices, doing so is only for the purpose of remembering the great sacrifice Jesus paid for our sins on the cross.  We must always guard against thinking that performing penitent acts will contribute something to our salvation.  Remember, Lent is a time for reflection and soul searching.  Lent is a season to reflect on our own sinfulness and our need for a Savior.  Whatever we do should be done for the purpose of focusing our attention on the redeeming work of Jesus Christ who is our perfect substitute in life (Romans 5:19) and our innocent substitute in death (2 Corinthians 5:21).  The purpose of Lent should never be on what we might give up for God, but rather on what God gave up for us, his only begotten Son (John 3:16), by means of His sacrificial love.

*Based on content (with modifications and additions) presented in "What Does Lent Mean?" by Rev. Glenn Schwanke, Pastor, Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS), Houghton, MI, February 17, 2016,

Picture: "Ecce Homo" (Behold the Man) is by the Swiss-Italian painter Antonio Ciseri, 1871.  The title of the painting, "Behold the Man", reflects the words of Pontius Pilate when he presented Jesus, crowned with thorns, to the crowd before His crucifixion.  The picture has been cropped to fit the available space.