A Journal of Christian thought at MIT

On The Meaning of Lent

Lent begins 40 days before the most important part of the Christian year, that being the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Although the number 40 is representative of judgement and spiritual testing throughout the Bible, Lent is especially tied to the 40 days that Jesus fasted and fought with the devil's temptations before being baptized by John and beginning his ministry.

In going across the Jordan river to the wilderness, Jesus began his ministry by symbolically retelling the story of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt in which they had to wander for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the promised land as the nation of Israel. Since the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, the Jewish people had been waiting for God to bring them back out of both a physical and spiritual exile and renew them as the people of Yahweh, the creator and sovereign God.

Just as God had displayed his rescuing power in bringing them out of Egypt, they were looking forward to the new exodus when God would return to them and they would be rescued by God's outstretched arm, their sins would be forgiven and the covenant would be renewed. Tied up in the prophet promises and national hopes was the restoration and expansion of the Davidic Kingdom in which the Messiah would defeat the enemies of Israel and become King over the nations. Ensuingly the explicit people of God would expand beyond the Jewish boundaries as the knowledge of God filled the earth.

Upon crossing through the Jordan river in his Baptism, Jesus begins preaching that this Kingdom of God is at hand, to repent and believe the good news. Though such a calling had its spiritual meaning, it was also a political plea and challenge to his fellow Jews to forsake other violent or separatist movements and instead trust and follow him in the establishment of the Kingdom.

For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was based on the purpose of Yahweh’s original redemptive and restorative intentions for the world. Specifically Abraham's offspring would be a blessing to all nations while the glory, restoration and salvation of God would come from Israel to all people. Accordingly for Jesus, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God meant that the outsiders are welcomed in, the exiled are brought home, sins are forgiven, people are healed, enemies are loved and God becomes King through defeating the powers of evil via the cross and the empty tomb.

The season of Lent is important to Christians because it is the retelling of the story of humanity; although we have wandered off into the wilderness, we have been called home to the Kingdom of our Father. We must therefore remember with thankfulness the rescuing love of God and accept the challenge Jesus gives us to love others and embody the justice, peace and joy of the Kingdom.

Lent includes fasting because as Christians we are called by Jesus to follow him into suffering, taking up crosses for the sake of others. The reality is that although we believe Jesus did defeat the powers of evil through his agonizing death and victorious resurrection, there is still evil, injustice and suffering in the world. The battle rages on but because of the cross and resurrection we have power and hope. We have power through God's spirit to fight the battle with love knowing that the Great King is fighting and suffering with us. We have hope because in Jesus's victory over death the firstfruits of the new creation and the renewal of all things have been sown and by this we can be sure that love is stronger than hate and life triumphs over death.