During the next 45 days, the church enters the season of Lent. If you’re like my husband, you may have grown up in a protestant denomination that doesn’t observe Lent and only think of it as a ‘catholic thing’. But Lent is also part of the protestant tradition and is observed by protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Lutherans, and many more; like my own denomination the United Church of Christ. If you haven’t observed Lent before, this post will highly encourage that you try it. And if you have observed Lent before, this post will still be valuable because it is a reminder of what Lent is, why we do it, and how we do it. When done properly, Lent can be an invaluable season for spiritual growth and deepening of your relationship with Christ and with his people.
What is it?
Just as Advent is the season leading up to the birth of Christ which we celebrate on Christmas, Lent is the season which leads up to the death and resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate on Easter. Lent, like Advent, is meant to prepare our hearts and minds for those holy days. Lent is a time to recommit ourselves to Jesus Christ.
Lent lasts 40 days, excluding Sundays (Sundays are meant to be “mini-Easters), starting Ash Wednesday and ending the Saturday before Easter. This is supposed to represent the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and enduring temptation in the desert. 40 is a significant number in the Bible and precedes many important events; the rain before the end of the flood (Genesis 7:4); Moses’ time on Mount Sinai before receiving the Law from God (Deuteronomy 9); the entering into the promised land after wandering in the desert (Numbers 13); Goliath’s challenging of the Israelites before David defeats him (Samuel 17); and many more. The 40 seems to separate two distinct periods of time. If you see the number 40 crop up in the Bible, pay attention, something big is about to happen or change. In the case of Jesus, it was the transition between his family life and the start of his ministry which would end in his death and resurrection.
Why do we do it?
Similarly, the 40 days of Lent are meant to be a transition in the life of the believer from whatever they were doing before, into a recommitment to following Jesus. During Lent, we are meant to spend these 40 days focusing on God in three different ways: through devotion, through self-control, and through giving. Typically when outsiders think of Lent, they only see the second aspect of it: self-control. This is often represented by fasting or abstaining from certain foods. For instance, Catholics traditionally abstain from meat during Lent except for specific days. However, many traditions do this differently.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, where Christians are anointed with a cross on either their head or hand. These ashes are usually the burnt palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The ashen cross is supposed to remind us of our sins which were paid for on the cross and bring us into repentance before Jesus. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a solemn time of inner reflection in which we confess our sins. Ashes also have a significant role in the Bible and are used to show one’s sorrow and repentance. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our lowly state, that we were brought from dust and to dust we shall return.
Now you might be thinking, well this is morbid, why would I want to take part in something that sounds so dreadful? Remember, Lent is about getting your heart right to accept the sacrifice of Jesus and to then celebrate the joy and hope of his victory on Easter. It is a time to remember that without Jesus we are only dust, but, because of what he did Easter Sunday, we are now children of God who look forward to the resurrection of our own bodies and life after death.
How do we do it?
As mentioned earlier, during Lent we are supposed to be focusing on God in three different ways: devotion, self-control, and giving. This is what each category means for Lent and why we do it:
Devotion is something we do for God during Lent that focuses on our relationship with Him. This is often accomplished by reading scripture or praying.
Self-control is something we do during Lent that helps us practice controlling our worldly impulses. This is also a way of training to control sinful desires. Often this is done through fasting or abstaining from certain foods throughout Lent.
Giving is something we do during Lent that helps us better understand the loving and giving heart of Jesus. By giving during Lent, we are growing closer to God by doing his work and loving his creation and creatures. This can be done by tithing, increasing our donations, or volunteering our time in or out of church.
Lent is a “holy season”. What this means is that Lent is a season that we set aside from our day-to-day lives and give to God. Accordingly, the three ways we focus on God during Lent should be something different than we usually do either in quality or in quantity. For instance, if you already tithe, then saying your tithe is what you’re giving for Lent isn’t any different than how you normally live. Or if you’re a vegetarian, giving up meat for Lent isn’t any more of a practice in self control. Each of the three categories requires both sacrifice and sustainability.
What I mean by sacrifice is that it should be something that takes effort on our part and disrupts how we would normally live. We are setting aside time, effort, and resources to God that we don’t normally give him. It isn’t a sacrifice to give up chocolate for Lent if you hate chocolate. However, these sacrifices have to be sustainable because you are supposed to do it over 40 days. Don’t decide to read the entire Bible in 40 days if that isn’t something you can realistically do. So for each category (devotion, self-control, and giving) try to find something that will take effort on your part but that, with God’s grace, you can continue to do for 40 days. Ecclesiastes warns us about promising something to God and not following through with it: “If you make a promise to God, keep your promise. Don’t be slow to do what you promised. God is not happy with fools. Give God what you promised to give him.”
So let these 40 days be a time of transition in your life, just as it was for Noah, Moses, the Israelites, David, and Jesus. If you missed Ash Wednesday, don’t worry, it’s the heart that matters not the ceremony. Take time now to pray to God about what you should devote to him, give up for him, and give to others for him. Pick things that you can do but that will take effort to accomplish. Remember that every time you decide to do something for God, the enemy and your own sinful nature will immediately set about trying to get you to stop doing it. You’ll start thinking that your commitments aren’t really important to God and don’t really matter, or that it’s too much effort and God expects too much. Stand firm and persevere through Lent so that on Easter Sunday you can celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a renewed heart and mind, going forth with a deeper understanding of and commitment to our Lord and Savior.