“Lent 101”

by Beth A Richardson on January 25, 2011 · 64 comments

by Penny Ford

Note from the Editor: Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Thanks to our friend, Rev. Penny Ford for this handy introduction to Lent.

What is Lent?

Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God.

When is Lent?

It’s the forty days before Easter. Lent excludes Sundays because every Sunday is like a little Easter. Basically, it’s about one-tenth of a year (like a tithe of time). Mardi Gras is the day before Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. This year it’s from March 1 (Ash Wednesday) to April 16 (Easter), 2017.

Mardi Gras?  What does that have to do with JESUS??

Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday.” It refers to the day before Lent starts. Since Lent always starts on a Wednesday, the day before is always a Tuesday. And it’s called “Fat” or “Great” because it’s associated with great food and parties.

In earlier times, people used Lent as a time of fasting and repentance. Since they didn’t want to be tempted by sweets, meat and other distractions in the house, they cleaned out their cabinets. They used up all the sugar and yeast in sweet breads before the Lent season started, and fixed meals with all the meat available. It was a great feast!  Through the years Mardi Gras has evolved (in some places) into a pretty wild party with little to do with preparing for the Lenten season of repentance and simplicity. Oh well. But Christians still know its origin, and hang onto the true Spirit of the season.

So the real beginning of Lent is Ash Wednesday?

Yes. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, usually begins with a service where we recognize our mortality, repent of our sins, and return to our loving God. We recognize life as a precious gift from God, and re-turn our lives towards Jesus Christ. We may make resolutions and commit to change our lives over the next forty days so that we might be more like Christ. In an Ash Wednesday service, usually a minister or priest marks the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead with ashes.

Why ashes?

In Jewish and Christian history, ashes are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality, because when we die, our bodies eventually decompose and we become dust/dirt/ash/whatever. Repentance, because long ago, when people felt remorse for something they did, they would put ashes on their head and wear “sackcloth” (scratchy clothing) to remind them that sin is pretty uncomfortable and leads to a sort of death of the spirit. This was their way of confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.

Where do the ashes come from?

On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem while people waved palms and cheered him on. Less then a week later, Jesus was killed. The palms that were waved in joy became ashes of sorrow. We get ashes for Ash Wednesday by saving the palms from Palm Sunday, burning them, and mixing them with a little oil. It’s symbolic.

What do Christians do with ashes?

At an Ash Wednesday service, folks are invited to come forward to receive the ashes. The minister will make a small cross on your forehead by smudging the ashes. While the ashes remind us of our mortality and sin, the cross reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection (life after death) and forgiveness. It’s a powerful, non-verbal way that we can experience God’s forgiveness and renewal as we return to Jesus.

So what is LENT?

At Jesus’ baptism the sky split open, the Spirit of God, which looked like a dove, descended and landed on Jesus, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, My Beloved, with whom I am pleased.” Afterward, as told in Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Spirit. Where he fasted and prayed for 40 days. During his time there he was tempted by Satan and found clarity and strength to resist temptation. Afterwards, he was ready to begin his ministry.


Maybe Jesus needed some time with God to sort through the major changes happening in his life. Maybe he needed to get away from family, friends and the familiar routine in order to see God (and himself) more clearly. Perhaps he wanted some intentional time with God as he searched for direction and answers like you. Like Jesus, we may need to take some serious time to pray and listen for God.

Why “DO” Lent? How do I start?

Are you searching for something more? Tired of running in circles, but not really living life with direction, purpose or passion?  It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the drama of classes, relationships, family, and work. Our lives are filled with distractions that take us away from living a life with Christ. We try to fill the emptiness inside us with mindless TV, meaningless chatter, stimulants, alcohol, too many activities or other irrelevant stuff. We run away from life and from God.

Lent is a great time to “repent” — to return to God and re-focus our lives to be more in line with Jesus. It’s a 40 day trial run in changing your lifestyle and letting God change your heart. You might try one of these practices for Lent:

FASTING: Some people have been known to go without food for days. But that’s not the only way to fast. You can fast by cutting out some of the things in your life that distract you from God. Some Christians use the whole 40 days to fast from candy, tv, soft drinks, cigarettes or meat as a way to purify their bodies and lives. You might skip one meal a day and use that time to pray instead. Or you can give up some activity like worry or reality tv to spend time outside enjoying God’s creation.  What do you need to let go of or “fast” from in order to focus on God?  What clutters your calendar and life? How can you simplify your life in terms of what you eat, wear or do? Learn more about or design a fast. (Check out this article for ideas on Family Time Lenten Sacrifices.)

SERVICE: Some Christians take something on for Christ.  You can collect food for the needy, volunteer once a week to tutor children, or work for reform and justice in your community. You can commit to help a different stranger, co-worker or friend everyday of Lent. Serving others is one way we serve God. Learn how giving of yourself is prayer.

PRAYER: Christians also use Lent as a time of intentional prayer. You can pray while you walk, create music or art as a prayer to God, or savor a time of quiet listening. All can be ways of becoming more in tune with God. Visit The Upper Room Living Prayer Center to request a prayer, pray for others, or try one or two new prayer practices.

Christians from many different traditions celebrate Lent. How will you use the time to grow closer to God?


10. Try an electronic fast. Give up TV, Facebook, texting, tweeting, e-mail and all things electronic for one day every week. (Or everyday of Lent!) Use the time to read & pray. Learn about fasting. (Learn more about media fasts.)

9. Start a prayer rhythm. Each day of Lent, go to The Upper Room’s prayer wall and pray for another person.

8. Go deeper into the Bible. Take an online course on the “I Am” sayings of Jesus.

7. Forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it (maybe even yourself.) Study a book on forgiveness, such as Forgiveness, the Passionate Journey.

6. Give up soft drinks, fast food, tea or coffee. Let Juliana’s Ice Cream Fast inspire you to give up some food or drink as a way to grow closer to God. Give the money you save to help folks in a different part of the world who are in crisis. Pick a current global issue and help change the world.

5. Create a daily quiet time. Spend 10 minutes a day in silence and prayer. Read a daily devotional for the season of Lent. See how it can help you add spiritual practice to your daily life beyond Lent.

4. Cultivate a life of gratitude. Write someone a thank you letter each week and be aware of how many people have helped you along the way. Learn more about spiritual practice of gratitude.

3. Participate in a Lent Photo-a-Day practice and pray each day with your camera in your hand. Start praying.

2. Volunteer one hour or more each week with a local shelter, tutoring program, nursing home, prison ministry. Learn about the global issues and how you can help.

1. Pray for others you see as you walk as you walk to and from classes or drive to and from work. Download the Nimbus Prayer app and pray as you go through your day.

About the Author: Rev. Penny Ford is the pastor of a small UMC church in Carrollton, Alabama.  She loves playing trains and going for walks with her son, Jamieson.

Photo Credit: Photo by Beth Richardson. This is one of the altar settings at The Upper Room’s SOULfeast conference (2009).

Permissions: Please send us an email for permission to reproduce.

Rhonda Alvarez February 18, 2011 at 5:22 am

Dear Beth,
I used The Uncluttered Heart for our Wednesday Night Bible Studies during Advent and am so pleased to see an offering from you for Lent. I will be developing an “observance” of Ash Wednesday at our church on the 9th, setting a precedent for this type of activity before we enter Lent and finally Easter Sunday. Thank you for posting the background and the many suggestions for our Ash Wednesday Observance and for Lent from Penny Ford .

Rhonda Alvarez
Lake Seminole Presbyterian Church
Seminole, Florida

Beth Richardson February 19, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Blessings on your church and ministries. Thanks so much for your sharing.


Paige Kepner February 19, 2011 at 11:44 am

How can my church receive permission to use parts of Rev. Ford’s Lent article in our March newsletter or as a Sunday bulletin insert (March 6)?
Since I just read it today, I hope there is time to gain this permission in the coming week!

Beth Richardson February 19, 2011 at 6:54 pm

Hi, Paige,

Yes, it is fine for you to use parts of the article by Rev. Ford. Please just credit Rev. Penny Ford and The Upper Room. If you have room, please include the URL alivenow.org.

Thanks for asking.


Tricia Harris February 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I have recently starteda small group bible study for 7th and 8th grade girls. Do you have any resources for teen girls for a lenten journey? I would love to hear any suggestions. Thank you.

Micah Sheppard February 26, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I have girls in grades 5 and 6 and am ransacking my bag of ideas for them for Lent. So far, 1) explain that Lent is part of the Christian calendar, and what the calendar looks like 2) Talk about it as a preparation for Easter, a celebration of our baptism through developing good spiritual habits. My kids normally have a “chore chart” where they get stickers for various things that they remember to do – brushing teeth, feeding the cat, practicing music, etc. When they get so many stickers, they get a reward of some kind. I’m thinking a “Spiritual Growth Chart” along the same lines would be a good idea. I made one for myself last week, just to try it out. It includes standard stuff like reading a Bible chapter every day, prayer, meditation, yoga, practicing music, etc. but you can make that interesting to kids by making them more interactive or high-tech. For instance, listen to the “Daily Audio Bible” http://www.dailyaudiobible.com, meditate by going for a walk or listening to Pray-As-You=Go http://www.pray-as-you-go.org, pick a service project to participate in together, bake for neighbors, give up TV or some other luxury, eat differently (give up candy or red meat, or cook special meals), etc, etc. I think learning about the history of Lent and why we practice it this way is interesting too and helps kids connect what they’re doing with what kids across the centuries have done.

Camille February 7, 2012 at 12:47 pm

The Spiritual Growth Chart is a great idea! I guide a intergenerational Sunday School class that is always opened to trying new things. They are at various points on their journey so this is something that could be done with any group. And let’s just admit, everyone likes getting stickers for completing a task!! Thanks for sharing the idea.

Some years back my mother began writing a letter/note each day during Lent. She said she liked the idea of doing something for someone instead of giving up something. She also commented on the ability to meditate when composing the words. While letter writing may be a dying art, I don’t think it would hurt to introduce it to our young people and allow them to participate in something that does not have have instant gratification, but does make a lasting impact. They could begin the process by making a list of people they want to write to, gather mailing address, and secure writing supplies and stamps. Included on that list could be missionaries who are currently serving, students from other congregations, people on the sick and shut-in/prayer list. Who knows they might even be surprised to find a response (in the mail) from one of their writings!

Rev. Monica Mowdy February 28, 2011 at 10:35 am

From the United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship Website

Water and Ashes do not mix!

“As you plan for Lent and Ash Wednesday, be sure to read and reflect on the introductory resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship, pages 320-321. You might also want to publish parts of it in your church newsletter (giving credit to the Book of Worship, of course) to help prepare your congregation. BUT WATCH OUT! There is one place in this introductory material that contains a potentially hazardous error. On page 321, The United Methodist Book of Worship incorrectly suggests that “The ashes may be mixed with a small amount of water for the Imposition of Ashes.” Do not do this. The mixture may form a caustic substance that will irritate or even burn the skin. Instead, use dry ashes (ground to a fine powder), or mix the ashes with a little olive oil or some other vegetable oil. Similarly, do not remove the ashes by trying to wash them off! Instead, rub them off with a towel (not moistened with water) followed by, as the text from Matthew’s Gospel suggests, some olive oil or other vegetable oil to help remove the residue.”

Thought I would share this as your very helpful article speaks of mixing the ashes with water to represent tears.

Beth Richardson February 28, 2011 at 11:44 am

Thanks very much for the link and the warning!


mary maloney February 6, 2012 at 8:04 am

Dear Beth, We will be traveling for three weeks -leaving Friday, Feburary 10th and will be doing the disapline of No E-Mails (so if possible Please hold emails for 3 weeks) I will miss all of the inspiration that I have come to so appreciate here. For our next trip I will have the printed version of the Alive Now ordered the other day. The Upper Room devotional will go with us this time. May many take advantage of your gifts all though the season of Lent. YOU have my Love and Prayers, Mary maloney

John Copenhaver March 5, 2014 at 10:05 pm

Why is alms-giving not mentioned? The traditional readings for Ash Wednesday, Mt. 6 include alms-giving. You mention prayer, fasting, and service, but the traditional are prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. This seems like a serious oversight. Fasting and alms-giving are linked–this makes fasting the justice work that God intended (Is. 58). Otherwise a very helpful article. I don’t understand this omission.

Beth Richardson March 6, 2014 at 7:23 am

Thanks, John, for catching that oversight. We didn’t intend to leave out Almsgiving. Good catch. We have a great article on the spiritual practice of giving: http://alivenow.upperroom.org/2011/08/31/the-spiritual-practice-of-giving/

Thanks again for taking the time to post.


John D Copenhaver March 6, 2014 at 7:32 am

Thanks for the clarification–it just struck me as odd. Fasting is not just for personal piety but to share our bread with the hungry. Thanks again for the good intro to Lent.

Beth Richardson March 6, 2014 at 7:38 am

Thanks again, John. I really appreciate you taking the time to ask. Many blessings on your Lenten journey.


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