The season of Lent has a rich historical background, but for those who choose to participate, its present value is even higher.
“I’ve committed to it a couple times before when I was younger, but I don’t think it meant as much to me as it does now,” said Abby Johnson, a junior English major. “Now I see it as a way to truly practice the sacrifice I feel God has called me to every day of my life, constantly surrendering every moment, every memory, every relationship to Christ.”
Lent, which is a period of 40 days of fasting between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, began a few hundred years after the Church first began.
According to Dr. Samantha Miller, assistant professor of the history of Christianity, the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE is when Lent was first mentioned by name. Shortly after this, Lent became a traditional practice for the Church.
“It’s meant to be a time of penitence and preparation for Easter,” Miller said. “It’s a time of thinking through, repenting, being aware of your sin and fasting as part of that, for the Resurrection.”
It wasn’t until Gregory the Great, who was Pope around the year 600, that Ash Wednesday became the official first day of Lent. Until that point, there was confusion about when the fasting should begin because Sundays do not count in the 40 days of Lent.
“Sundays are feast days,” Miller said. “They have to be little Easters.”
Lent has remained mostly unchanged in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. For Protestant churches, however, there are varying degrees of participation in Lent.
Dr. Nathan Willowby, assistant professor to theology and ethics, said that, for most of its history, the Church of God has been resistant to Lent.
“My suspicion is that, since Lent is not expressly in the Bible and had such a strong association with other denominational practices, including the Catholic Church, the Church of God has not historically embraced Lent as a significant part of Easter preparations,” he said. “There are church congregations within the Church of God in which Lent is getting some traction.”
Willowby said that, within the last decade, the Church of God has begun a campaign called Focus40, which gives sermon series ideas and prayer calendars to congregations.
Additionally, this year the national Church of God offices launched their human trafficking mission, TraffickLight 2.0, on the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday, which they called “Freedom Sunday.”
“While neither is expressly described as a Lenten alternative, they do appear to relate to the church’s recognition that it is appropriate to see the season of Lent as religiously significant and a time to pay special attention to certain Christian commitments,” Willowby said.
With AU’s history as a Church of God school, the campus is less involved in Lent than some other Christian schools, such as Marquette University, a Jesuit school, where Miller last experienced Lent.
“When you’ve got priests and nuns on campus, there’s a weight to Lent, and you feel the history,” she described. “I really loved feeling the weight of Lent [at Marquette]. Everyone’s doing this communally, and there’s a different feel to that being here this year.”
Although the campus may not be participating in Lent as one community, many students have dedicated to fasting during Lent.
“I am doing a food fast, eating a low-calorie diet,” said Robert Harris, a senior Biblical studies and youth leadership development major. “Through reflection and prayer, this literal fast pushes me to honestly assess how, in more spiritual ways, I have taken in what I do not need. I am confronted by the question ‘is my spiritual diet healthy?’ and convicted by the answer. Lastly, by participating in a fast like this, I feel a greater sense of solidarity with Christ and his own fasting in the desert.”
Samantha Stimer, a junior English major, gave up social media this year. She hoped to give up the time she spent thinking about social media by replacing it with intentional time devoted to her faith and relationship with Christ. She hopes to use this time of fasting as a way to influence her permanently. “I hope that I continue to do Lent for the remainder of my life,” she said.
For Elijah Neal, a freshman who plans to declare a Bible and religion major, Lent has been part of his life for years. This year, he wanted to try something new.
“I decided to not participate in Lent this year,” he said. “I always have a problem with fasting for part of the year because I normally give up something to allow me to focus on God more, but that means when Lent is over, I go back to my addiction. This year, I tried to live life normally, and I am glad that I did, because a few days ago, I started to give up one of my addictions completely. Hopefully, I will continue to give my addiction to God for more than six weeks.”
Others, such as Michael Weigel, a junior political science and economics major, are aware of Lent but are not particularly impacted by it. “I can’t say that it’s ever had a large impact on my life specifically,” he said. “I gave up meat for 40 days one year ago, more for health reasons than anything, but I liked that it overlapped with the religious observance.”
The season, although religious in nature, is more than just tradition, according to Miller.
“The fasting is about redirecting your attention, and also practicing saying no to the insignificant things, so that you can learn to say no to the really big things,” Miller said. “You have to practice with things that don’t matter so that when some bigger sin or temptation comes along, you’ll be practiced at saying no.”