Mardi Gras can be a lot of fun, but when Fat Tuesday ends, Ash Wednesday begins. Clean up the mess from the party, and recycle the empty bottles. Welcome to Lent.
If you’ve never observed Lent before, or if it means nothing more to you than “forty days without chocolate,” then here are a few thoughts to introduce you to this ancient Christian season. Lent is more than just a time of year — it’s a spiritual practice.
The word Lent comes from the Old English word lencten meaning “springtime.” It’s unique to the English language: the Latin word for Lent is Quadragesima or “fortieth” referring to the number of days in the Lenten fast. In the Orthodox Church, this season is called “the Great Fast.”
So there is a paradoxical quality to Lent. It’s a time of fasting and self-denial, yes — but it’s also a time of hope and optimism, waiting for the arrival of spring and longer days. Lent is not about the absence of joy; on the contrary, through silence and simplicity and emptiness, Lent invites us to reconnect with a joy that often is hidden by the fullness and busy-ness of ordinary life.
The period of time from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, actually consists of forty-six days. But during this period there are six Sundays, and those days are not part of the forty-day fast. Sunday is a feast day, even during Lent.
So what is the point of Lent? If your theology is deeply penitential (stressing how sorry we humans should feel for our sins), then it could be a time for feeling extra sorry, and the Lenten fast (that chocolate you’re not eating, remember?) symbolizes how contrite we sinners are (or should be).
But that’s not the only way to understand Lent. Starting with a theology centered on God’s mercy rather than humanity’s sinfulness, we can see that God’s unconditional love and forgiveness cannot be influenced by human efforts to feel contrite or make sacrifice. So, then, why observe Lent?
Lent is not something we do to make God change. It’s something we do in response to God’s love, to bring about change within ourselves. Think of it this way. If your garage is full of clutter, and you’ve just bought a shiny new Prius and you want to use the garage for its intended purpose (to shelter your car rather than your junk), then you have a job to do. You need to clean out the garage. Likewise, Lent is a time when we try to clean out the clutter in our hearts and minds and souls, to prepare ourselves for the joyful gift of new life, freely given to us through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Words that describe Lent — a time of silence, simplicity, meditation, humility, attentiveness — also describe contemplative prayer, and indeed, Lent does have a richly contemplative quality about it. It’s a time of waiting with quiet joy for the blessings to come at Easter. The Lenten fast and almsgiving discipline, when done correctly, instill in us a sense of longing, if not literal hunger — an emptiness that represents our soul’s deep longing for God. Contemplative/silent prayer also stresses the emptiness that exists in each person’s soul, beneath the “noise” of our chatterbox minds and emotional hearts. “Be still and know that I am God,” proclaims Psalm 46. But to find that stillness within, we need to empty ourselves.Incidentally, the forty days of Lent symbolizes the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness after his Baptism. It was a time of cleansing and prayer for him, and it preceded the launching of his public ministry. So Jesus’s “Lent” was a time of deep inner transformation, through prayer and silence and fasting.
The “giving up” part of Lent is meant to be something significant enough that you notice the sacrifice, but not so huge that it becomes a source of spiritual pride (“Look at me, I gave up everything but bread and water for Lent; aren’t I holy?”). It doesn’t have to be food, although fasting from ice cream or alcoholic beverages can be excellent Lenten disciplines. But you could also fast from any type of pleasure, like social media, television, or gaming.
The fast is only part of your Lenten discipline, though. Traditionally, Lent is a time for almsgiving — giving money or other resources to those in need. In other words, Lent involves doing something extra as a response to God’s love. And yes, giving to those in need is a great place to start. But Lent is also a great time to begin or renew a daily prayer practice (especially silent or contemplative prayer), Bible study or lectio divina, or giving time to a worthy cause. Like the Lenten fast, this “something extra” works best when it is a meaningful, but not overwhelming, commitment. Mighty oak trees grow from acorns, so let your Lenten commitments be small. God can use a small commitment in big ways.
St. Benedict, in his Rule for Monasteries, not only suggests to monks and nuns that they should be wary of over-doing their fast during Lent, but also that they should share their Lenten commitments with their spiritual father or mother. Even for those of us who aren’t monastics, this is a great idea. Discuss your plans for observing Lent with your spiritual director if you have one, or even with an informal prayer partner. Doing so creates a bond of accountability (you’re less likely to blow off your fast if someone knows about it) and also a bond of charity, for you and your companion can commit to praying for each other as you each strive to observe your Lenten commitment.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to do anything at all for Lent — God loves you regardless. But remember the new car and the cluttered garage. If you leave your garage messy, you can park your car on the street and no one will complain. But it’s a less than ideal situation, and with just a little bit of effort you can have a much better arrangement. Likewise, your faith could truly be blessed by this simple 40-day discipline. Prayerfully consider it — it’s worth giving it a try.