As we approach Lent, Rt Rev Prof NT Wright shares his thoughts on how Lent emerged, why it’s significant and what it means for us today

This article is an adapted extract from NT Wright’s book (published by SPCK) Lent and Easter for Everyone. To hear more, check out Ask NT Wright Anything and watch out for the Podcast on YouTube coming soon. 

The early Christians were different. Different from the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians and Syrians in whose world they lived, their next-door neighbours and, often enough, their extended families. Different, too, though in a different way, from the Jewish families and communities to whom, again, many Jesus-followers would be related.  

The early Christians were marked out in many ways, but one of the most distinctive was something they did every year. The first solid evidence for this comes from about 300 years after the time of Jesus, but this clearly reflects an already established practice.

Something they did; or, perhaps we should say, something they didn’t do. They kept what we now call ‘Lent’: a time to abstain, to fast, to clear the mental, spiritual and physical horizon in order to focus on prayer, penitence, holiness and hope in the days and weeks before Easter.

Lent didn’t stand alone. Many Christians today, if they keep ‘Lent’ at all, follow it with only a single day of Easter celebration. But the early Christians celebrated Easter as a prolonged festival, running for 40 days until the commemoration of Jesus’ Ascension.


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Why did they do all this? What did it mean for them? And what might it mean for us to follow the same kind of discipline?

Perhaps the most important thing they were doing was to remind themselves, in the weeks either side of Easter, that world history divides into two: the time before Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the time afterwards. New creation has been launched in the midst of the old. 

This huge claim challenges the way most of the world thought, and thinks. To get it into our hearts, minds and lives, we adopt this ancient practice of a time of lament followed by a time of celebration. Though we do indeed now live in the ongoing ‘Easter season’ – ever since God’s new creation was launched with Jesus’ resurrection, and energized with the fresh gift of his spirit – we can never simply take it for granted. It has to become real, and fresh, in our own lives. 

New creation requires renewed humans at its heart. Keeping Lent and Easter is an excellent way of maintaining that fresh reality.     

The sharp distinction between Lent and Easter reminds us of a double truth many Christians today easily forget.


First, the importance of lament. It’s easy, when carried away with the joy of the gospel, to ignore the fact that the world is still in a mess; that the Church is often muddled and sinful; that we ourselves still fail miserably in our love for God and for one another. 

At this point someone might say: “Oh, that sounds so gloomy! Surely God wants us to be cheerful?” But, actually, the gift of lament points to the true joy of the gospel. Being a Christian doesn’t mean pretending that everything is “all right really” when actually it isn’t. 

To lament is to recognise that things still are out of joint, and that we can and should bring our puzzled sorrow and frustration into God’s presence. God’s gift of lament (following the Jesus who, according to Isaiah 53:3, was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with infirmity”) is the way we join in with God’s own sorrow at the continuing tragedy of his world.


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Second, though, the importance of genuine celebration. Keeping the season of Easter isn’t whistling in the dark. It is opening our eyes to the light – and, in astonished gratitude, determining day by day to live in that light. 

Once we get Lent right – once we learn to lament properly, with our bodies as well as our minds and hearts – we can then praise God for Jesus’ death and resurrection, and for the new creation into which we have been brought, without any danger of making it sound cheap or trivial.

The Church has always known, intuitively even, that the best way for us to be shaped into the people God wants us to be – the people whose difference from the world around is vital to our witness – is to think and pray slowly and carefully through the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. May God be with you in this journey. 

This article is an adapted extract from NT Wright’s book (published by SPCK) Lent and Easter for Everyone. To hear more, check out Ask NT Wright Anything and watch out for the Podcast on YouTube coming soon.


NT Wright is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and the author of many books including Surprised by Hope, The Day the Revolution Began, Paul: A Biography and most recently, Lent and Easter for Everyone. His podcast Ask N.T. Wright Anything is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and soon to be released on YouTube Podcasts.