Lent is strange for those that don’t follow the tradition. Or if followed at all it may mean giving up a vice for 40 days, an addiction to technology or caffeine or sugar, but not really knowing why.
That was true for me for many years. If you grew up in an evangelical church like I did, you may not know that much about Lent either.
It is the period of fasting leading up to Easter to remember Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness. Like his fast, it is to be a time of sacrifice and listening. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends right before the evening service of Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, depending on your tradition. This year Lent begins on March 9 in the Western Church.
For the longest time I was attracted to the idea of giving up a vice that had persistently bothered me, but I had no theological understanding of the tradition. I think evangelicals are remiss in not teaching about Lent, which can be a beautiful and profoundly meaningful tradition of growing closer to God.
I think we miss out because we give things up but don’t replace them with anything.
The intended purpose of Lent is a season of fasting, penitence, and self-denial, but also of spiritual growth, conversion, receiving from and embracing simplicity.
“Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. Thus it is fitting that the season of Lent begin with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one’s head or forehead.
However, we must remember that our Lenten disciplines are supposed to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit. Our Lenten disciplines are supposed to help us become more like Christ. Eastern Christians call this process theosis, which St. Athanasius aptly describes as “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”1
The aim in observing Lenten disciplines is to be changed as a person — body, soul and spirit!
Therefore there is more to it than giving something up, which I’ll admit for the longest time I thought was fairly impressive in and of itself. I don’t do well without caffeine which is something I habitually gave up. Or sweets. Yikes that one is hard.
As one endeavors to grow to be more like Christ and know him better, with the grace of God the tradition says you would be focusing on Fasting, Praying, Almsgiving (Charity or service) and Scripture.
- The Catholic Church requires its members age 18 to 59 “to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, unless a physical condition prevents otherwise. This means only one full meal is permitted. The Fridays of Lent are days of required abstinence, meaning meat, and soups or gravies made of meat, are not permitted.” This traditional way of fasting I have have never observed. Giving up meat once a week or only drinking water for the 40 days is a way to remind ourselves of our abundance and to draw our attention to Christ’s sacrifice for us all. And to be more conscious of how much we have.
- Lent is a good time to develop a discipline of daily prayer if you don’t have it already. Whatever it might be, the idea is to add the discipline of listening and seeking through prayer, whatever that looks like for you.
- While giving something up you are also to put something positive in its place. They say the best way to remove a vice is to cultivate virtue. What might you do for someone else over Lent?
- As he faced temptation in the desert, Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the trickery of the devil. Growing up I was encouraged to memorize scripture, but today this rarely occurs in the Church. Memorize a section of scripture like the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Or if you are thinking of reading a whole book of the Bible promise yourself to read two chapters a day or finish a medium-sized book of the Bible by Easter.
Also, here is a wonderful compilation of books to read, rituals and fasts to consider, and meditations to read from Rachel Held Evans.
When it comes down to it, so often we don’t take the time to ask why we do a certain thing. Why do I need to observe Lent?
I found Evan’s ten questions helpful to ask myself as I prepare for Lent. But I winnowed and edited them down to three simple questions.
- Is there a habit or sin in my life that repeatedly gets in the way of my loving God or loving others?
Ask God to get a hold of that habit over the next 40 days and help you have the discipline to give it to him, forever.
- Is there anyone in my life with whom I need to pursue forgiveness or reconciliation? This is unlikely to happen in 40 days, but preparing your hearts for it — yes, that can happen if you ask! Here is a poem that I wrote during a time of profound grieving knowing I had done and said what I thought was “unforgiveable.” It is called Longing for Mercy.
Ask God to begin to work in your heart (and in the other person) to ready you both for reconciliation in God’s perfect timing.
- What am I willing to give up to carve out extra time for daily contemplation and listening to God? So often we allow life to press in and set our priorities and not decide for ourselves. What is important? Perhaps you need to get up an hour earlier during Lent to be with God? I started doing this in September and I can tell you that my life will never be the same. I find myself craving that time and (most mornings) it is not difficult to get up. You may need to go to bed earlier to do it. I do! Again a sacrifice, but well worth it in my experience.
Ask God to show you what you need to stop doing to have more time with him.
Ultimately we simply strive to live with the attitudes of humility, repentance and thankfulness. I pray that you will be richly met as you seek to know Jesus better.
A few things I wrote last year about Lent.
And if you’re more confused than satisfied with my post, here is a great description of Lent as described by Marcel & Sarah who have a blog named Aggie Catholics and lots of reading material.
Other sources I used.