I went for a long run today and it wasn’t easy. I can usually go ten miles at a pretty good pace without too much worry, but on today’s run my legs felt stiff and my heart rate was too high for the pace. I’m a bit out of running shape, but I don’t worry. I’ve been doing other things over the winter, lifting weights, getting stronger, but now with an ultramarathon and triathlon on the calendar for the spring, it’s time to get to work training for specifically for those sports.
The seasons and cycles of training for triathlons and other endurance events have helped me understand the liturgical year. Most athletes are always doing some sort of training, but it ebbs and flows, gets more intense or less intense, depending on the specific time of year. I would wear myself out if I was training with the intensity I do for my highest priority race all year around. Training has to change season to season or an athlete gets burned out and injured.
The period I’m in now is one of the most intensive periods of training of the year. I have only a few months until one of my favorite triathlons and I’m hoping to improve my time significantly over last year. These next several weeks are going to mean hard workouts and very focused work until race day. There are months of training that go into a successful race that passes in only a few hours, but few athletes would tell you that the time training wasn’t worth it. This relationship between training and racing is very much like Lent and Easter.
Lent is the intensive training period that leads into Easter, which we could crudely say, is like race day. It is by fasting, living in greater simplicity, and taking on special times of study and prayer that we become spiritually trained for the event of Christ’s death and resurrection. If we don’t train it is unlikely we will have a good race; if we don’t work through spiritual disciplines of lent then we are unlikely to have a meaningful Holy Week.
There are hundreds of choices and approaches to training for a triathlon. There are plans that emphasize lots of volume—time spent biking, running and swimming. There are others that emphasize intensity—high speed interval work. All will make an athlete fitter for race day. In the same way there are many approaches to how we can prepare for Easter through Lent—we could take something on, give something up, write a letter every day or Fast every Wednesday and Friday. Whatever we do it will make us more ready to embrace the terror of Good Friday and the Joy of the Paschal Feast.
In disciplining ourselves through Lent we are of course following in the pattern of Christ who fasted for 40 days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. It was at the end of that forty days that Christ meets Satan and his temptations of power and pride. As Dallas Willard has pointed out, we should not see Christ after his 40 day fast at his most spiritually exhausted, but at his strongest. The 40 days of fasting has prepared him for the confrontation which he finished with a win and angelic post-race meal.
So as we enter into Lent we should see it as a training program—a path toward spiritual strength to fully embrace the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Pick your training plan and get ready for the race that awaits you–“Those who endure will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).