What is Lent?

Dear Maggie,

What is the season of Lent?

Penitentially Perturbed

Dear Perturbed,

My, my, I hope to leave you a bit less perturbed after you read this!  Lent is one of those Christian seasons that we all know culturally, but often don’t really understand. For many of us Lent is the season after Mardi Gras (or Shrove Tuesday) and before Easter, a time when we eat Filet-O-Fish Sandwiches or a good basket of fish n’ chips on Friday (which is no sacrifice in my mind!).  A few of us might give up something like sweets or alcohol and take up some extra bible reading and prayer.  All this is fine and good, but Lent is so much more than this!

Lent began as a period when the faithful would join new Christians in preparing for Baptism on Easter.  The new Christians, following the pattern of Christ going into the wilderness to fast and pray, would enter into a season of focused devotion to prepare themselves for the new life that was to come.  Those already baptized in the church would often join these new Christians both in solidarity and in renewal of their own lives of faith.

It is best to think of Lent, not as a time of deprivation but as training.  We are getting ready for something, we are training our hearts and minds and bodies to fully live into the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Sometimes taking on special practices like praying the Anglican Rosary daily or giving up something help us mark the time.  If you’ve ever trained for a significant athletic event you’ll know that during the training period you have to change the habits and patterns of your life—how you eat, spend your time, and even sleep.  That is how Lent is, except it isn’t a race, it’s about refocusing our whole being on the Resurrection life Jesus offers us. 

Now fasting is certainly a part of all this.  It used to be that Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays year around.  Then it became just during Lent.  Then it became just Fridays in Lent.  Then it became no meat on Fridays (thus the tradition of fish on Fridays in lent).  Now we don’t fast from much of anything.  As Isaiah and other prophets warn us, fasting in itself is not much good, but in its best expressions it helps us to retrain our desires. Jesus fasted and invites us to also learn to live from God rather than simply physical food.  On the negative side, if we can hold off from eating food for a day then maybe we can hold off from other things that might actually harm us or harm others.  Fasting helps us develop one of the core spiritual capacities—self-control and conscious dependence upon God. 

Even if you don’t fast from food during Lent, it is good to give up something that will be hard for you.  It is always by pushing and stretching our limits that we really grow. We can’t have all fasting, however.  Even though we look toward Easter, every Sunday in Lent is still a Feast of the Resurrection.  So it is that whatever we give up or take on in Lent can be relaxed on Sundays.  It doesn’t mean that we go all out and gorge ourselves on chocolate, but we can mark the day with a square of chocolate and perhaps a glass of wine.  In this we remember that all of this fasting is really to enable us to embrace the life of joy more fully.

My advice for Lent is that you give up something that inhibits your greater joy and take up one discipline that will increase it.  For instance, if you feel compelled to eat sweets every chance you get then you are giving into a small joy while keeping yourself from the greater joy of health.  Lent is a time to embrace that greater joy.  Then take on a discipline that will help you embrace the life God is offering.  Memorizing a beloved passage of scripture is a great way to bring your heart and mind into ready reflection on the word of God.  What could be more joyful than having God’s word ready to fill your mind whenever you need it, wherever you are? 

I hope all this helps you see that Lent is a time to give up small pleasures for a larger joy.  May you have a full, joyful, and holy Lent!

Peace be with ya,