Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer. ~ 1978 Book of Common Prayer
Today is Ash Wednesday. It’s the day Christians commemorate as the beginning of the season of Lent – a 40-day preparation for and pilgrimage towards the Holy Triduum (the three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday which celebrate Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection). The 40 days are reminiscent of the Israelites’ 40 days in the wilderness and Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. If either of these events are unfamiliar to you, no worries. The main thing you need to know is that “40” isn’t necessarily literal and is meant to convey a basically crappy time for all involved because of a dearth of food and the inevitable temptations to insanity/depravity that arise when people get hangry. Struggle, in other words.
The English word “Lent” comes from the Old English word lencten, which means “lengthen” and refers to the time in spring when daylight grows longer. I appreciate the connotation because it reminds me that anything worthwhile and beautiful involves a preceding duration of struggle. When I first came to Winnipeg from Hong Kong, I used to keep my gloves on indoors and even while attempting to email home. My fingers weren’t used to the absolutely God-forsaken winter temperatures here. And before I enjoyed the warmth of longer, sunnier spring days, I had to endure this seemingly endless, gloved nonsense. Similarly, the goal of Lent is to welcome more light into your life – to somehow become more spiritually luminous. And Lent reminds us that this doesn’t happen without ~40 days of icy extremities beforehand.
Christians believe that there are things which dilute, distract, and outright oppose people’s ability to love themselves, others, and God. We call this sneaky collection of things “sin.” I fully recognize that the word has both cobwebs and baggage around it. Nonetheless, I find that I need the word precisely because it elicits discomfort and because I’d rather pretend that what it suggests doesn’t exist. It’s easier to talk about “issues” or “growing edges;” “sin” cuts through the fluff and keeps me honest about actually being in the wrong. At times. Probably a lot of the time. There is no better illustration of this fact than learning to drive in Hong Kong with a driving instructor who, quite literally, was called “Mr. Sin.” He might as well have been called “No, not like that. Again.” Anyone with even an ounce of self-awareness knows that regardless of what we call it, we’re somehow all driving poorly with Mr. Sin.
During Lent, we are invited to a vigorous time of struggle against this sin (the reality, not the generally pleasant Chinese driving instructor). Again, we’re engaging this struggle because it’s the way into daylight. A way of God to us.
One last, fairly important thing. My driving experience, for example, shows that despite my best intentions, I need outside help. Christians believe that God – personified and represented most beautifully in Jesus – is this ultimate help. As it pertains to Lent in particular, Christians throughout history have taken on several practices in order to further open themselves to the light of Jesus and his help. Think of it like tanning (largely irrelevant for me, by the way): you can’t manufacture a tan by willpower or effort. You have to place yourself somewhere long enough to be changed by something with the ability to yield the desired effect. That’s how spiritual practices work and that’s what all this Lent business is really about.
Last year, I engaged the following fairly typical Lent practices (and will be doing so this time around as well) and commend them to you as a way of more intentionally embodying the spirit of the season. May our lives, as a result, become a shade brighter.
- Examination and Repentance
- Ask God about your sin. Where haven’t you loved yourself, others, or him in the things you’ve thought, said, done, or not done?
- Ask God for forgiveness and to strengthen you in all goodness.
- Prayer, Fasting, and Generosity
- Fasting is essentially a form of self-denial whereby you voluntarily set aside something for a time in order to intensify attention to and awareness of God (this attention and awareness is prayer). Incidentally, the things you are most reluctant to set aside are probably the very things that get in the way of your life with God.
- Fasting is a helpful, practical way to focus prayer and realize that God – not food, Facebook, friends, or what have you – is the real source of all pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction.
- In tandem with fasting, Christians have often given special attention to generosity (“almsgiving”) during Lent as a way to avoid selfishness and to inspire love and service to others (e.g. fasting from food might leave you more money to share with those who don’t have as much).
- The Word of God
- Hearing, reading, and meditating on the scripture is pretty customary for Lent.
- There are a number of Lent resources available online; here are some that I’ve found particularly helpful: