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Lenten Devotion: What is Lent?

Matthew Fretwell, World Relief’s Spiritual Formation Director, explores what Lent is and why we practice it in this Lenten devotion. Read his reflection to consider what Lent has meant and could mean for you as you walk with Jesus. Lent begins on February 14 — join us and Christians around the world this Lenten season through our new devotional, “He Was There.”

Discovering Lent

As a boy growing up among Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal peers on Long Island, New York, I thought I knew about Lent. My young friends and I assumed Lent was a time when someone had to give up something they loved in order to please (or manipulate) God. 

The big question among friends and classmates was always, “What are you giving up for Lent?” But we couldn’t have told you why.

Maybe you’ve felt that way about a religious tradition or ritual. It’s something you think you’re “supposed” to do, but you’re not really sure why…

A Deeper Meaning for Our Lenten Devotions

Thankfully, through the instruction of Father Hemsley, a lovely and gentle elderly man, I was introduced to a new understanding of the Lenten season. 

During that time, I served in my Episocopal church as an acolyte. For myself and many of my friends from different Christian traditions, being an acolyte was a right of passage. Our Sunday duties included carrying the crucifix in the processional to and from the altar, filling the communion goblets and lighting and snuffing out candles. 

We also received religious instruction, and it was through serving and learning as a young acolyte that I first began to feel the holy presence of God. I remember I would ride my bicycle to Father Hemsley’s home and sit with him and his wife as they discussed the things of God. 

In those conversations, my eyes were first opened to how Lent could help us demonstrate our hearts of gratitude, humility and loving devotion to Jesus Christ. He helped me see that it is an outward showing of our inward heart. In retrospect, 11-year-old kids don’t know as much as they think!

A Time of Renewal

For those who may be new to the tradition of Lent, this season first began when the early church set aside 40 days of fasting and reflection before Easter. Historically, Lent evolved into a penitent season to rid the soul from obstacles created by the self, sin and the world. 

But Lent has consistently been a time of introspection, soul-seeking, alignment and giving. Unlike Christian rhythms that begin on Sunday, Lent begins in the middle of the week. It’s purposefully designed as a holy interruption of our busy lives.

While Lent can be ritualistic, it should not be legalistic. Engaging in spiritual disciplines and seasons like Lent are best motivated out of adoration and love. Lent is a time of renewal and the aligning of body, soul and spirit with God in preparation of celebrating the glorious resurrection of Christ and merciful redemption of humanity.

Nearly forty years later, I’ve explored and aligned with Christian traditions beyond my Episcopal roots, but the lessons I learned from Father Hemsley continue to shine through during the Lenten season. 

As you begin this journey of Lenten devotions, I encourage you to explore your own traditions, feelings and beliefs around this season. 

Have you observed Lent before? If yes, how and why? How do you hope the season of Lent will draw your heart closer to God’s this year?

To join Christians around the globe this Lent, sign-up for a free copy of our new Lenten devotional, “He Was There.”

Matthew Fretwell is the Spiritual Formation Director at World Relief. An ordained pastor, he is a church planting practitioner and has served in various pastoral and leadership roles. He is also the author of over 10 books, including the three-volume Multiplying Jesus series and Church Planting by Making Disciple-Makers. He and his wife have three daughters.

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