The first time I ever heard of someone "giving something up" for Lent was in college. Before that, I didn't know any Catholics, and I also didn't know any Protestants who "did Lent." (If I sound sheltered, I was, at least religiously. Most of the time I was surrounded by Presbyterians and Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, none of whom are known for their Catholic devotions). In fact, the only times I heard of Lent were in Bible studies or classes in which we were meant to feel sorry for those poor, benighted Catholics who thought they could work their way to heaven because they didn't know any better. Until just a few years ago, I honestly thought that Lent was what Catholics did because they thought they could win enough good points towards heaven that way.
That's why it's so surprising to me to see so many Protestants - and not just Episcopalians - doing Lent. It's like an explosion happened in the last ten years, and all of a sudden evangelicals started having Advent calendars and Ash Wednesday services. All of which is pretty cool, but I bet some of the older evangelicals feel a little... lost. Like, how on earth did my solid evangelical church start looking so Catholic? And while even my Presbyterian church back home has an Advent wreath, hell would freeze over before they started recommending Lenten practices. Somehow Lent still has a Catholic edge to it, even if all the cool kids are doing it.
So what's a Protestant to do? Is Lent Biblical? Is it earning salvation? Is there any point to Lent now that we're not under the law?
I'll try to answer these questions with my old evangelical hat on, knowing what I know now. This isn't coming from the current me, the heretical "prays to Mary and the saints and thinks the Eucharist is Jesus so why listen to her" version. This is coming from the mindset of one who is still very solidly evangelical, if I could go back in time and give that Caroline the factual knowledge I have now....
For starters, you don't have to "give up" anything for Lent, or even "add something on." Lent is a time for facing tough realities. Realities like: everyone dies. Everyone sins. Everyone needs forgiveness. Everyone needs the Cross. Fasting, giving up sweets, working in soup kitchens - these are all ways of reminding oneself of that reality. In my experience God gives us plenty of non-chosen sacrifices to fill up our Lents. This year, I had two friends die within weeks of each other, and one of them died the day before Ash Wednesday. It's not healthy to fixate on death, but you can't ignore it either.
But shouldn't we be doing this all the time? No, not necessarily. "To everything there is a season, and time to every purpose under heaven." We're human. It's not in our nature to do All The Things All The Time. We can't always, every day, be thinking of our mortality for one hour, then meditating on the Incarnation, then remembering about the resurrection, then trying to think what other Big Ideas are most important.... It's not healthy or reasonable. It makes sense to set aside a certain time of the year to contemplate sin and death.
But why a specific date chosen by an institutional church? Doesn't Paul warn us against having special days and seasons? Isn't that following the law when we're now under the New Covenant? Well, it depends on how literally you take that. Should we never celebrate birthdays? Never commemorate the dead? Again, we are humans. It's not that you have to do XYZ during Lent or you'll go to hell. After all, God doesn't need us to keep Lent. WE need us to keep Lent. It serves a spiritual purpose that works with the New Covenant of grace, not against it. You don't have to do it exactly as the church does, but before you dismiss it, consider that the church might have good reasons for choosing this time.
Why chose some arbitrary 40 days? The number forty is hardly arbitrary; it's packed with spiritual and Biblical significance. Consider the 40 days of Noah in the ark, the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, the 40 days that Nineveh fasted and repented, the 40 days of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted.... Consider this a time that you can wander in the wilderness, exploring the tough realities that we like to put aside. And remember: Easter is coming.