The word itself probably comes from the Latin word for spring and it is calculated as being the 40 days, not counting Sundays, before Easter, which you may remember is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It just is.
Aside from the arcane calculations, Lent is given in the liturgical calendar as a season of repentance and preparation. We are to use it to prepare ourselves to experience the mystery of Maundy Thursday and the Upper Room, the agony of Good Friday and the cross, the joy of Easter morning and the empty tomb. It is about Jesus and our relationship with him.
At its worst, Lent is a frayed icon from a different time in our culture. We celebrate its beginning with the wild excesses of Mardi Gras, fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, and we choose some trifling self-sacrifice – eschewing caffeine, chocolate or cookies for the duration – as if that will guide us into a deeper understanding of the cross.
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, old Lutheran and Catholic country, where Becky and I lived for a season of our lives, Lent was marked by the famous Friday night fish fries in the fire halls and church basements of our town. Giving up meat, at least for one day a week, during Lent meant fish and lots of beer on Fridays. Maybe not so bad a trade-off.
My Facebook page this past Tuesday showed at least one friend bidding us all farewell until after Lent, no Facebook being the sacrifice he was willing to make on his journey to the cross. Knowing the friend, I take this to be a serious effort, the time away from social media very likely time in contemplation and preparation.
So what do we do with Lent? And should we even acknowledge it? Our Reformed forbearers would say that we should ever contemplate the cross of Christ, daily bearing our own crosses as we die to self and live for others. Discipleship is not a seasonal thing, they would say.
I am a reluctant convert to the practice of Lent, but have come to see its value and have experienced its worth.
If you are wondering about Lent and what value the practice of it might have in your life, let me suggest:
- This article, Why Bother With Lent, which offers an evangelical case for the observance of Lent as a helpful spiritual practice.
- Give up. Maybe. If by giving up some small pleasure or daily habit, we are reminded to ponder the things of grace, then giving up – chocolate, caffeine or Facebook – is well worth it.
- Take on. If giving up is no more than an excuse for fried fish and beer on Friday nights, it does us little good. Serious “taking on” is the most important discipline of Lent. We may take on service or caring or simply healthier habits; fruit replacing chocolate. I suggest that in addition to whatever else you feel compelled to take on, you take on pondering. Ponder the journey to the cross and the way of the cross.
There are abundant resources for this pondering. I will recommend two:
- First is the devotional guide we are providing to our church family, Called to Life, Called to Love. This collection of writings by Henri Nouwen is available in the Chapel and Narthex, though after Ash Wednesday it seems that the supply may be running low. Let us know if you are unable to find a copy.
- Second is an online (PDF file) devotional from the Gospel Coalition, Journey to the Cross. I will be using this devotional and it looks meaty. It is not designed for a quick read on the run; it will challenge those of us who use it. Would you let me know if you decide to use “Journey to the Cross”? We may want to turn to each other for support!
Lent as spiritual exercise is about so much more than Friday fish fries or forty days (plus Sundays) of giving up your Facebook posts. It is about Jesus.