As we mentioned last week, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday on February 13, the day after Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday!). All around the world, millions of Christians will participate in a church service or liturgy that somberly underscores our mortality as creatures and our sinfulness as human beings. Dust and ashes. Confession and fasting. And many of those millions will go on to “observe” the six weeks of Lent by some discipline of self-denial like fasting or abstinence.
The Invitation of Lent
But why do this, apart from simple tradition? Or to ask the question another way, what good reason lies behind the tradition in the first place? After all, don’t we who are “in Christ” always stand forgiven, always live under God’s grace? And did not Jesus promise his followers abundant life? Are we not meant to celebrate our in-God’s-image humanity and to enjoy the variegated delights of creation? So, why this season of asceticism?
Yes, we are blessed with good life in this good creation. But these first fruits of redemption render us neither humanly immortal nor morally human. We remain always vulnerable to pain and death and always subject to temptation and evil. Of course, we are meant to rehearse our dependence on God, body and soul, week in and week out, all through the year. And to receive his grace day by day. But there is something to be said for rhythms in our spiritual lives, for special times to focus attention more intensely on a given dimension of our life in God. Hence Lent—as commended by the church for over 1700 years.
Commended is an apt word. Think of Lent as an invitation, not an obligation. The Book of Common Prayer extends a threefold invitation to observe Lent: “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” In the paradoxical dynamics of spirituality, God offers us a gift in conjunction with our giving up, a grace in response to our humility, and a feast as the end of our fasting.
Lent in My Life
A few days ago, in a moment of tiredness and discouragement, I succumbed to the temptation to look at inappropriate images—so unhelpfully available on our “smart phones” these days. Of course, after a few minutes of self-indulgence, I closed the screen and realized once again how completely unsatisfying such a diversion always is; it doesn’t salve my psyche, it sullies my soul.
I instinctively thought to myself, Lent is coming soon . . . That’s good, because I am certainly conscious right now of my spiritual need . . . I could use a season of honest self-examination and purposeful humility and corrective disciplines . . . This will be good for me.
So I took out my journal and began making notes of how I wanted to “inhabit” Lent. I reaffirmed my intention to stick to my usual pattern of fasting from food on Ash Wednesday, on each Friday, and over the Paschal Triduum—the Great Three Days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
I also decided to fast from all “unnecessary” spending (I’m still thinking out what is “necessary” and what is not—it will certainly include mochas from Starbucks). And I marked my intention to be disciplined in morning prayer (receiving the day as a gift from God) and evening examen (releasing the day with two questions: Where did I experience and respond to the presence of God today? Where did I experience his “absence,” that is, where did I fail to remember and respond to his grace?). Perhaps I will add one more positive Lenten practice as well.
What’s God Inviting You to Do?
How are you preparing for Lent? Will you make plans to attend an Ash Wednesday service, to let your forehead be marked with a visible sign of your physical mortality and your moral humility? Will you quietly fast that day, reminding yourself, as Jesus often did, that you do not live by bread alone, but by the life-giving words that God has spoken and speaks?
Will you choose to forgo some good pleasure or two for roughly 40 days as an antidote to your human tendency to idolize aspects of creation instead of worshiping our generous, but jealous, Creator?
Will you use these weeks in the Christian calendar to begin turning your spiritual attention, like Jesus in Luke 9:51, to Jerusalem, the site of the crucial events of our redemption in the Holy Week? That week is the center of the Christian year and the heart of our faith, the drama of salvation, of death and life, of darkness and light, of horror and hope.
Will you say yes to the invitation of Lent?
I trust that you will. And that, in so humbling yourself, you’ll find much grace.