Quick confession:: I observed Lent for the first time in 2011 (at 30 years of age).
Lent wasn’t a spiritual or practical discipline that I understood or witnessed among my family or network of friends until 2010. I knew about Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday (of course)… but I was largely unaware of the rich ecumenical and theological history behind the act of fasting for 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday.
Interestingly, I was the self-appointed “Chief of the Legalism Ward” in every faith community in which I was involved… and the potentially arrogant self-torture that Lent can sometimes lean toward would have been an annual staple in my legalism repertoire.
I believe that God’s mercy spared me this… and thus preserved a beautiful ancient tradition which is now an anticipated season of personal reflection and communal celebration.
The fasting and feasting rhythm of Lent is wonderfully contagious to me now. Knowing that I am fasting and feasting in community with many other followers of Jesus the King (in my local church, and across the global church) is desperately humbling. Knowing that I am practicing a discipline that will deepen my hunger for God and give me a greater sensitivity to Christ’s sacrifice fills me with hope.
My hope is not in the discipline or the rhythm itself (as it once was) but in the King who asks me to align my life with the Good News of His death and resurrection.
When I decided to celebrate Lent for the first time (in 2011) and wanted to invite Remedy Church along for the journey, I asked my friend, Jacob T. Holloway, to write an essay explaining the history of Lent and providing a few well-placed pointers to “Lent Newbies” like me. We have shared Jacob’s essay annually in our church… but I think it’s time to share it with you as well.
May these words help to teach you the cadence of Kingdom love::
Lent is a practice that is largely not observed among American Protestants today. Though we sometimes view it as a Roman Catholic invention, virtually all Christians prior to the Reformation prepared for the coming of Easter by spending the forty preceding days focusing on prayer, repentance, good works, and personal sacrifice. Those of us who have abandoned Lent have much to gain by imitating our Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican brothers and sisters in taking it seriously once again.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent starts forty-six days before Easter; however, the six intervening Sundays don’t count towards Lent, giving us the familiar forty day length. This is a highly symbolic number: many events in the Bible lasted forty days or years—the rain of Noah’s flood, the wandering of the Israelites in the desert, and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, which Lent calls us to remember and imitate. Preparing himself to begin his public ministry, Jesus prayed and spent time in solitude with God. Most Christians pray often; but most of us don’t do so regularly or spend much time listening for God’s answers to our requests and concerns, depriving us of half the benefit. Lent reminds us to pray always, about a breadth of topics, and with a commitment to seek a deeper relationship with God and not merely to satisfy a shallow obligation.
During his time of preparation in the wilderness Jesus also fasted. This sort of sacrifice is what we usually associate with Lent. Historically, most people had no luxuries to give up,so they gave up a necessity: food. Abstaining from certain foods, like meat or deserts, or eating only one meal a day is a valuable practice and many still follow it. Whether we give out of poverty or abundance, giving up something that we enjoy frees our time and eliminates a potential distraction, helping us focus on God and the reason for Easter. Sacrificing also allows us to imitate Jesus in a small way, giving up some of our many comforts and pleasures as he gave up his, while we remember and prepare to commemorate his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Lent motivates and gives us an opportunity to refocus our attention from our desires to God’s desires: the compassion, generosity, and forgiveness that we find in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Lent also invites us to reorder our priorities. Anything that we can give up is by definition nonessential and anything we can sacrifice is ipso facto less important than that for which it is sacrificed. Since I have been challenged and inspired to observe Lent, doing so has helped me realize the excessive importance I was giving to several institutions in my life. Even the ones I didn’t give up I gained a new perspective on. Our lives are typically very busy and cluttered; taking time to return to essentials is vital and there’s no better time to do so than the weeks leading to Easter Sunday, the most important date on the Christian calendar.
This year, join over a billion Christians who will honor the tradition of Lent by praying, repenting, and refocusing on God. Free your time and attention by sacrificing something good that you enjoy. Give up one meal a day, or stop eating out. Suspend your Netflix account. Start volunteering. Put away your iPod. Begin reading a daily devotional. Stop doing that thing in your life that, while not bad in itself, you’ve become too obsessed with. Look for opportunities around you to demonstrate love for others. Do some combination of these, or something else entirely. But do something. If you’ve never practiced Lent before, you may feel a little awkward at first. For me, the sacrifice initially felt artificial and silly. That’s normal when trying anything new. Stick with it and let any feelings of awkwardness remind you of the reason for the season and motivate you to concentrate on the things in life that don’t just feel essential but are essential. Focus on the Provider, not the provisions. Lent has taught me that, paradoxically, giving things up can be more rewarding and fulfilling than enjoying them. Try it. This year, observe Lent and see what happens.