By Tracy Simmons
Lent begins this week, which means Christians are entering a sacred season. Many Protestants and Catholics (not all) recognize this time by giving up something for 40 days as a way to remember the 40 days Jesus fasted in the desert. The season begins with Ash Wednesday and concludes with Easter.
You can view local Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday and Lent listings here.
We asked our panelists what Lent means to them.
From your faith lens, what’s the significance of Lent? What will you be giving up and why?
Our life should be a continuous Lent. Is that a scary thought? I have to admit the idea tends to give me the heebie jeebies. Lent often seems to be overlaid with a lot of artificial asceticism and guilt and these are not characteristics I want to characterize my life. But I am a Benedictine sister and in the Benedictine Rule which we follow Benedict said the life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. Fortunately the idea isn’t quite as off-putting as it first sounds.
In the 6th century St. Benedict of Nursia wrote a guidebook for people wanting to live a life focused on God. This guidebook, “The Rule of Benedict,” was intended for monks living together in community and is still the guidebook followed by monks and nuns today, but also by people living outside traditional monasteries who are finding it a source of deep wisdom.
He devotes one entire chapter to the observance of Lent. And while he does strongly urge giving up something for Lent, he also says something very interesting about why we should do this. The purpose is to, “look forward to Easter with joy and holy longing” (RB 49:7). Now there’s an interesting concept, Lent is about joy and holy longing, and not guilt. Frankly that’s a relief because giving up things often just leads to failure and guilt. Instead, Benedict implies that the extra disciplines are simply designed to sharpen my sense of anticipation, of deep longing to experience the transformative power of God in my life. Lent is like anticipating a big event by marking off days on a calendar knowing that something wonderful is coming.
The practices of Lent are reminders that Easter is not simply a given, it is not something we can take for granted or be complacent about. By setting aside Lent as a sacred, anticipatory time we will experience Easter as the always new, always unmerited, always transforming gift of God’s grace in our lives. So perhaps whether or not I even try to give up something this Lent the practice and the anticipation will be about joy and longing.
On the corner of Hayden and Maple in Hayden Lake, Idaho, in a little log cabin in a grassy field, my first memories of Lent were formed. Years passed and things changed at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. A paved parking lot replaced the grassy field where we kids once ran and played. A contemporary gray structure, large enough for sharing the space with a Presbyterian church, was built around the brown cabin, which is the fellowship hall today.
What never changed was the ritual of Lent. It began every year on Ash Wednesday. “From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” the pastor would say while marking each forehead with the sign of the cross in ashes. During the season of Lent, the time between Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, worshipers gathered inside the cozy cabin every Wednesday evening for the Lenten soup supper and service. Lent was a time for reflection and repentance. We sang only somber hymns like “Were You There” and “Ah Holy Jesus.” I was well acquainted with the communal aspect of Lent in gathering every Wednesday evening.
Fasting was another matter, a private one that no one talked about. Not until I left home and entered Bible College in my 20s did I start fasting during Lent. Each year since then I give up something that requires self-control, effort, or sacrifice. Sweets, junk food, gossiping are among the top contenders. Some years I take something on, whether it be daily exercise or reading Scripture or prayer. Certain insights in the form of questions arise for me only during the season of Lent. To what extent does guilt factor into my choice to fast? How does piety differ from being self-focused? Do my theological reasons to fast match my experience of it? To participate in Lent is to journey with Jesus to the cross, to embrace vulnerability by giving up something, by letting go.
“So, what are you giving for Lent?,” Norm asked one Sunday after Ash Wednesday. I have known Norm, an old-time religion type of guy, since we joining the church.
“I gave up chocolate,” I answered and then took a bite of my chocolate cake. Of course, he looked at me with an aghast expression, as if I had told him how the movie “Bambi” had made me want to be hunter.
I explained that I follow the older form of Lenten fast. On Sundays, Christians are allowed to have what they have given up. Sundays are the mini Easters that we remember Jesus has given us new lives. That is why Lent last 46 days and not 40. It’s 40 days of fasting and six days of celebrating the gifts that God gave us. Norm did not like this answer. He thought somehow I was cheating. Giving up chocolate for Lent should mean giving it up the whole season.
Lent is a season of repentance, which usually means for us to feel bad for our wayward ways, how mean we have been to others and that we should take stock of our own failings. From this perspective my enjoying chocolate seemed like I was cheating the system. I was having my cake and eating it too, so to speak. The problem is that view is mistaken on the nature of repentance. To repent means turning to God, not evaluating our shortcomings. True, turning to God will remind us how unworthy we are to approach God, but this a result of turning to God and not the purpose. The true purpose is to draw closer to God. In Lent, we are asked to give up something we enjoy to feel in a very tiny way what God gave up to be with us. The relationship that God makes with us in Jesus cost the cross.
Many times Lent is used as an expression for us to display our self-control and give up a bad habit like smoking or fried food. Such goals, while admirable, miss the point of Lenten fast of drawing close to God. Repenting means not feeling bad but preparing for God’s new life in Easter. Each Sunday is not an excuse for me to eat enough chocolate to carry me through to next Sunday, but to understand how much God has given me and how much it has cost God. During the week, when I see chocolate, it reminds me of Jesus. Throughout my Lenten fast, I find that my thoughts turn more and more toward the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In a Lenten fast, I learn not that I am strong, but that I am weak and he is strong.
This year, I am giving red meat. Anyone who knows me knows that I love beef. This love of beef will remind me, in a small way, how much love God has for me. I will turn to God and encounter him in a deeper way. Here lies the wisdom of the Lenten fast.
“But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long” ~ Jesus, Mark 4:17
I’ve been a follower of Jesus since I was 15 years old. I am 41 now and during all that time as a church member in Evangelical and Charismatic churches, I was never introduced to the historic practices of Christian liturgy. Most of my understanding of words like Lent, Ash Wednesday, Advent or Liturgy were usually associated with other words like liberal, ritual, formalism, legalism which always meant ‘dead or dying’ religion.
As a Protestant, it seems we have always been protesting something and that posture often ends up isolating many sincere and impressionable people from their brothers and sisters in other families with the Christian faith. In attempts to fence out heretics and their heresies we’ve forgotten how to build gates that open between homes. We’ve become Christian gated communities and only those with the ‘keys and codes’ are able to enter or in some cases even welcome. The 20,000 plus denominational/sect branches off the Jesus tree have begun to choke out the fruitfulness of the ancient planting of the Lord (Matt. 13:32). It’s probably time to prune the tree and clear out the feeders that suck the sap from the healthier limbs that have born much fruit. As a church planter, or church ‘splinterer,’ I can testify to the challenges and weaknesses of this path. Dead formalism is a real problem in the church. There are many churches that have a form of godliness but deny the power (2 Tim. 3:5) but we must be careful to not cut down the tree, without giving the gift and grace of time (Luke 13:7). Stereotypes often have seeds of truth within them and I have walked with people as they have sought to pry off the barnacles of fossilized faith that hardened over their souls in many different mainline traditions. But I have also experienced and witnessed the ache of ‘rootless’ faith in all the break off churches as well. There’s a thinness to much of our Evangelical religious life and more and more seekers are longing for a faith that has it’s roots in a more tested and ancient past then in the latest generational or cultural phase.
Instead of formalism many long for deeper Christian spiritual formation. Not the pop spirituality, quasi-Christian versions that leave the soul feeling desperately anemic. The fluff and flurry of many modern churches leave many longing for a robust and rich spirituality that seems hard to grasp among the tired theatrics, soulless technology and market driven protectionism that plagues many Evangelical circles.
As a 6-year-old church in a neighborhood where business turnover is almost a monthly experience and a renter culture is dominant, the need for a greater sense of presence and permanence lay under the surface of all the instability of our community. Homes and families are broken up by noncommittal relationships and pleasure-driven hookups. Single parenthood is the norm and high mobility leaves most relationships painfully shallow.
As a church we face the same temptations Jesus faced in the desert. There is always the desire to craft what we think is needed for the moment. It’s a missional malaise that drives consumerism in our ‘never enough’ culture. The new is always in danger of the newest and the same sickness is at work in our faith communities. The desire to climb to the pinnacles of visibility and popularity lurk in the shadows of church leaders hearts and minds. The pressure to bow to this present darkness and grant our worship to another who offers all that this world values, is a very real battle going on in the church.
All of these themes are historically mediated upon in Lent and as a church that is growing and struggling to form our own sense of tradition, we find the need to be grafted into the stock of the church more and more. Instead of trying to say something new and improved we are longing to echo what has been true from ages past. This Easter season, I hope that we will be able to reintroduce and introduce Christians in our circles to the thinking and practices of the greater historic church, not as kitsch but as an attempt to honor, recollect, celebrate and worship.
So for many of us, this means we will participate in an Ash Wednesday service for the very first time this Lent. I look forward to stepping back into a stream of practice that has flowed for thousands of years and lead others in these small steps of returning.
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter (2 Thess. 2:15).
We are broken from our natural state which is an interactive connectedness to all creation. We are descendents of the Big Bang, formed from the stardust of the universe — meant to live growing into this intimate connection with this love creation. Lent is a time to remember where we came from and who we are. In this remembering, we acknowledge our brokenness, reorienting our intention to live as we were made. We seek restoration that can only come from dying to our individualistic and disconnected ways. In Easter, we celebration in Christ a resurrection in which we can share and have the fullness of life on the earth and beyond.
Giving something up for Lent can be a disciple-like fasting that reminds us that our habits and impulses can drive us away from God and the fullness of life. I don’t always do this but when I do, it is a discipline of awareness. One year I tried to give up sarcasm and with my kids monitoring me, I learned that I was being sarcastic even when I thought I wasn’t. To the extent that we use “giving up” as a means for more conscious living — it can be a good thing.