Do Lutherans Celebrate Lent? Learn the Truth


For most Christians, the 40 days of Lent that begin on Ash Wednesday and culminate with Easter Sunday is a solemn period of deep spiritual reflection, repentance, and penance. The celebration of Lent varies among the Christian faiths, with Catholics adhering to centuries-old traditions and conventions in their observation of the Lenten season. Lutherans adopted their own forms of commemoration.

Many Lutheran congregations offer special services associated with Lent, such as the observance of Ash Wednesday. But for Lutherans, celebrating Lent is a matter of personal choice and following Lenten traditions like fasting or giving something up for the 40 days of Lent is completely voluntary. 

For millions of Christians around the world, Lutherans included, Easter is the most important day of the year as it commemorates the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When it comes to Lent, Lutherans may participate in some traditions such as Ash Wednesday services, but as far as common Lenten rituals practiced by so many Christians, Lutherans march to the beat of their own drum. Keep reading to learn more.

crown of thorns
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23 (ESV)

Do Lutherans Observe Lent?

Like their fellow Christian faithful around the world, Lutherans recognize the sacredness of Easter and the spiritual significance of the Lenten season that culminates in Holy Week.

Where Lutherans differ from other Christians, most notably Catholics, is in their observation of particular Lenten rites and traditions and the absence of any church-imposed obligation to do so. In other words, how Lutherans decide to celebrate Lent, including whether to participate at all, is entirely up to them.

One of the foundational beliefs of Lutheranism is that salvation is not achieved nor assured by adherence to church sacraments, rites, and ceremonies. Salvation come by grace through faith in Christ alone.

German Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) who founded the Lutheran denomination believed that man-made constructs, such as the compulsory fasting prescribed by the Catholic Church during the Lenten season, were without merit as they were not established (or even mentioned) in the Holy Scriptures. [1]

The concept of Lent is not described in the Bible. [2] Originally, Lent was a Christian practice that was rooted in the spiritual preparation of mind and body for baptismal ceremonies occurring on Easter. Fasting was also involved in early Lent celebrations, but for significantly shorter periods. Eventually, a 40-day period for Lent was recognized and “standardized” by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.

Lutheran denomination Lent
“And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Colossians 1:20 (ESV)

Lutheran Views Toward Lent

As a major branch of the Christian faith, the Lutheran Church views Easter as one of the most sacred events of the spiritual calendar. Along the same vein, Lutherans recognize the significance of the Lenten season and its underlying spiritual themes. 

But concerning following traditional Christian practices for Lent, such as fasting, abstaining from meat on certain days, or making personal sacrifices for the duration of Lent, Lutherans exercise far more personal freedom than other Christian traditions, most notably Catholics.

Lutheran Liturgical Practices for Lent

Although the Lutheran faith does not strictly prescribe liturgical practices in observance of Lent, many congregations embrace the overall spirit of the Lenten season by staging special events or embracing certain thematic elements in their services. These Lent-inspired practices can be categorized according to visual, historical, and spiritual forms of commemoration. [3]

Visual Commemoration of Lent

During Lent, the color purple is used extensively in church décor and thematic elements. Purple has traditionally been associated with royalty as the dyes used to achieve this color have historically been difficult to obtain.

Its prominence during Lent is a tribute to Jesus, King of the Jews, who was forced to wear purple as he carried the cross toward the site of his crucifixion.

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, many Lutheran churches may be arrayed in black to symbolize the darkness which only the death and resurrection of Jesus can lift.

Another visual observance of Lent that is practiced by a significant and growing number of Lutherans is the iconic sign of the cross smeared across the forehead with the ash gathered from the burning of palm crosses from the preceding Palm Sunday service. The ash cross symbolizes baptism and mortality and is a reminder to all that “you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

Historical Observances of Lent by Lutherans

The most significant historical observance of Lent by Lutherans is the omission (along with the “Hymn of Praise”) of the word “Alleluia” from sermons, hymns, and liturgy during the Lenten season. [4] Meaning “Praise the Lord” in Hebrew with joyful connotations. The stark absence of “Alleluia” recognizes the themes of penance and repentance that are so prevalent during Lent.

Lent’s solemn and reflective undertone transforms into a festive and joyous celebration marked by the return of exuberant “Alleluias” and triumphant hymns with the arrival of Easter Sunday. For many Lutherans, Easter Sunday and the closing of Holy Week is a significant spiritual event and one of the highlights of the Lutheran calendar.

Another somewhat jovial observance of Lent to which many Lutherans adhere is participation in Fastnacht activities, which typically occur the Tuesday night immediately preceding Ash Wednesday, marking the formal beginning of the 40 days of Lent. [5] Fastnacht also goes by other familiar names, including:

  • Fat Tuesday
  • Mardi Gras
  • Shrove Tuesday

Historically, in preparation for fasting during the Lenten season and abstaining from foodstuffs like dairy, eggs, and fatty foods, Christians long ago adopted the practice of cooking foods that utilized all of these perishable ingredients. Everything was used in one meal with the simple addition of flour, such as in pancakes or even doughnuts.

Spiritual Commemoration of Lent by Lutherans

Generally speaking, Lent’s major underlying themes are those of penance, self-control, and abstinence. The act of fasting during Lent not only pays tribute to the 40 days of fasting in the desert that Christ endured but also shows a Christian’s commitment to exercising self-control. Similarly, the practice of abstinence conveys a willingness to make personal sacrifices.

The Lutheran faith places no such requirements on its parishioners as the Bible makes no mention of Lent. [6] Anything not contained in the Scriptures is not considered holy by Lutherans. This is not to say, however, that Lent has no significance to Lutherans. On the contrary, it is considered by many to be a period for deep reflection and humble appreciation for the suffering of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion.

Lutheran Views on Fasting and Abstinence for Lent

One of the most familiar aspects of Lent is the practice of fasting and abstinence from certain foods and personal pleasures during the 40-day Lenten period. For many Christians, especially Catholics, such acts are not only compulsory, but the manner in which they are to be performed are also carefully spelled out [7]:

  • When fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, only one full meal is allowed, and it must be meatless
  • No meat from animals, including chickens, cows, sheep, and pigs, may be consumed on any Friday during lent
  • Fish can be consumed on Fridays during Lent
  • Catholics are also expected to give up something for the duration of Lent (including Sundays), but this particular type of abstinence is not strictly governed by the Church but rather by one’s conscience

The Lutheran view toward fasting and abstinence during Lent is that these practices are not in and of themselves objectionable. In fact, Luther believed that fasting was a worthwhile exercise in self-control, preservation of precious food resources, and even an impetus for charitable giving to those in need. Luther also believed that Lent served as an invaluable reminder to congregants of Jesus’ inconceivable sacrifices.

Lutheran views on fasting and abstinence during Lent as Church-imposed practices can be summed up as follows [8]:

  • Temporarily suspending a personal habit or pleasure for the period of Lent, only to resume it post-Easter does not further any spiritual goal
  • Fasting or abstinence during Lent does not result in the forgiveness of sins
  • As stated in Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession, fasting in a particular manner and at particular times as prescribed by the church “do not make us righteous before God… therefore it is not a sin to omit them.”

Conclusion

Lutherans who celebrate Lent do so by their choice and not to fulfill a non-scriptural, church-imposed obligation.

References:
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Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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