What is Lent?
Lent is a 40-day period before Easter that commemorates the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. In the early church, this was a time of preparation for those about to be baptized. Today it is more often regarded as a season of soul searching and repentance for all Christians when we prepare for the joy and celebration of Easter by giving ourselves an annual spiritual check up. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends at sundown on Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). If you are a good mathematician you probably realize that there are more than 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday. That is because early Christians never fasted on Sundays. They are excluded from the days of Lent because they are always celebrations of Christ's resurrection.
The temptations of Christ parallel those of the children of Israel in the wilderness, but how different are his responses.
- The children of Israel were dissatisfied with God's provision of manna. They remembered the rich foods from their captivity in Egypt and greedily hungered for more so that their physical cravings could be satisfied (Num 11:4-36). Christ saw his physical hunger as unimportant and trusted in God to provide for all his needs.
- At Massah, the Israelites demanded miraculous signs that revealed God's presence, totally ignoring God's constant and miraculous care for them (Ex. 17:1-7). Jesus refused to test God by the use of miraculous signs.
- The Israelites fashioned a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1-6), but Christ turned his back on temptations of worldly wealth and power.
Each time he is tempted by Satan, Christ deliberately turned away from the attractions of a self-centered and self-serving world in order to place God's purposes and the outwardly focused values of God's kingdom at the center of all he was and did.
Lent is a time for "confrontation with the false self" (Thomas Keating), when we reflect on the responses and behaviors we exhibit that are least Christ-like and seek God's help in rededicating ourselves to God and God's purposes. This is a time for self-denial and fasting when we give up some of the comforts of our lives in order to make ourselves more available to God.
Traditionally, Lent is marked by penitential prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Some churches, especially in the Orthodox tradition, still observe a rigid schedule of fasting on certain days during Lent, especially the giving up of meat, alcohol, sweets, and other types of food. Other traditions do not place as great an emphasis on fasting, but focus on charitable deeds, especially helping those in physical need with food and clothing, or simply the giving of money to charities. Most Christian churches that observe Lent at all focus on it as a time of prayer, especially penitential prayer, repenting for failures and sin as a way to focus on the need for God's grace. It is really a preparation to celebrate God's marvelous redemption at Easter, and the resurrected life that we live, and hope for, as Christians.
Interestingly the concept of spring-cleaning emerged from the practice of Lent. This was the time of year in Europe when one cleaned house -- first physically and then spiritually. I love this idea of connecting our daily lives and routines to the seasons of the church calendar. However what we "sweep out" or give up at this season should be more than food. It could be soccer or TV or social commitments. We might discuss with our families ways to give up our busyness and focus on the truly important things of God. The time we free up can be used for special prayers and Bible readings, for spiritual retreats and for involvement in local or overseas missions that enable us to focus beyond ourselves and on our responsibility to those who are hurting and in need.
During Lent it is as though we join Jesus in his walk toward Good Friday and the crucifixion. Our self-denial is a way to enter into the fellowship of Christ's suffering so that we can identify more fully with those who are chronically hungry, oppressed, in pain, or in need.
This year as we walk toward the Cross may we invite God to make us aware of those things that distract us from a wholehearted commitment to God. We may want to gather up all those things we are aware of that vie for our attention and literally nail them to the Cross.
This article is reprinted with permission from the blog Godspace.
Christine Sine is a writer, gardener, and self-described "contemplative activist." She and her husband are the founders of Mustard Seed Associates, a network of followers of Jesus that seeks to unleash the creative potential of individuals who want to put God's purposes first in their lives. She and her husband attend an Episcopal church in Seattle, WA. Her blog is Godspace.