Open the Bible and you won’t find the word “Lent” anywhere. So where does Lent come from? Why does it last for 40 days — 40 long days? And what exactly are we supposed to be doing? Is it really just about giving up coffee, chocolate and Coke? Or is there more to it?
The answers can be found by exploring the biblical roots of the season. Every year on Ash Wednesday, we read Jesus’ teaching about prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-18). And every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus’ 40 days in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-15; Luke 4:1-13).
First, the 40 days of Lent are modeled on Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert: “At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry” (Matthew 4:1). I bet he was! Here we see the deepest reason for the Lenten season: the 40 days of self-denial are done in imitation of Jesus. He prayed and fasted 40 days, so we follow his example with 40 days of self-denial. Now, we could just stop there. And many people do. But there is more to Lent than just “giving up” food and drink. For Jesus not only fasts, he also overcomes three powerful temptations:
The devil tries to get Jesus to transform stones into loaves of bread (Matthew 4:1-4). The temptation is for Jesus to break his fast and satisfy his hunger, which by this point must be ravenous.
The devil offers to give Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” if Jesus will bow down and worship him (Matthew 4:8-10). Here the devil tries to tempt Jesus by offering him possession of the kingdoms of the world, which were handed over to the devil by Adam in the Fall (see Luke 4:6).
Finally, the devil tries to get Jesus to “prove” he is really the Son of God by throwing himself down from “the parapet of the Temple” in Jerusalem and letting the angels catch him. Here the devil tries to tempt Jesus to perform a miracle that everyone would be able to see.
Of course, Jesus rebuffs each temptation by declaring that a person lives by the word of God, not by bread alone; that God alone is to be worshipped, and that one should not put God to the test. But why these temptations? Why does the Gospel tell us that “when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from (Jesus) until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13)?