Lent is the liturgical season in which Christians prepare for Easter through prayerful and solemn penance, and contemplation of mortality. Lent is derived by shortening the Old English word lencten which means “spring season.” It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends some forty days later on Maundy Thursday. The forty days of Lent represent the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry. Unfortunately, some Baptists have viewed the observance of Lent as being associated with “works righteousness.” It seems this view misses the depth and richness of Lent. Lent offers us a chance to reflect, respond, and strengthen our relationship with God. It also demonstrates a practice that is ecumenical, transcending denominations.
Traditionally, Lent has been observed by giving something up; it could be meat, alcohol, coffee, sweets, dairy, or any number of things. The sacrifice is in part meant to demonstrate our reliance upon God and emulate Jesus. An alternative to sacrifice could be taking something on as opposed to giving something up. This could be by way of community service or volunteering or kind acts or donating to a charity that you normally wouldn’t. A third option is a hybrid of both, such as giving up your afternoon coffee purchase and instead donating the money to a charity that provides clean drinking water for those in need. There are obviously any number of ways to observe Lent.
The essential factor is using your observance to deepen your relationship with God and prepare your heart for Easter. Regardless if you choose to participate in Lent or not, I hope and pray God’s blessing upon you during this season.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist context, I never heard of Lent. I had no idea the Christian Church had “seasons” or its own calendar. That was unfortunate. Discovering this in my college years came as a great surprise and a benefit to me ever since. For it became apparent to me that my navigation of this world and my life would be –if not easier then–more meaningful simply because I could comprehend my life as developmental, evolutionary which is to say, an unfolding mystery and journey.
The Lenten season begins this Ash Wednesday and marks the formal beginning of the season of Lent and that season is one of reflection, examination of our consciences and souls and repentance. We do this especially as we recall the testing of our Lord in the wilderness, just after his baptism. I sometimes get myself down to an Episcopalian church to have the sign of the cross made on my forehead with ashes. Baptists do not hand out ashes or participate (as a rule anyway) in this ritual act. I can tell you from my own experience, it is a powerful moment to have a priest rub those ashes onto your forehead as she says those solemn words, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Whether or not you participate in such a rite, the truth of those words should stir us to a season of contemplation and repentance.
Ashes as a sign of sorrow have been with us for a long time. In the ancient book of Job, we find that the stricken man “sat among the ashes.” This was a sign of grief and sorrow.
Leon Wieseltier in is book, Kaddish, wrote in his book about rending one’s clothes as a sign of grief. He pointed out that the mourner who rends thus gestures outwardly what has in fact takenplace inwardly. “This act of violence,” Wieseltier writes, “dignifies the external truth and the internal truth of what has happened.” So with the imposition of ashes on our foreheads: it is an outward sign of an inner sorrow and grief: for our participation in the ruin of the world, for our grief for life that is short and brief, and a declaration that we will live more faithfully and justly in the days to come. As the Book of Common Prayer declares:
We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.Have mercy on us, Lord.
Johannes Baptist Metz writes that becoming a human being is both a mission and a mandate. We are not given our humanity or our destiny as other animals who simply live out of their “natures.” That’s what dogs do. That’s what cats do. That’s what a lion does. And then of course the next statement is, that is what humans do. To which Oscar Wilde responded that if a person says they were just acting like a human being you can pretty much count on their having just behaved as an animal.
Your mission and my mission is to be fully human. We want to live up to and through what is most noble about that. This is also a mandate, a call and command to us to grow, expand, and reach for what is best in ourselves and others. This Lenten season offers us a chance to be introspective about how we’re doing with that mandate. We do so within the Christian religious context of Christ’s forty days temptation in the wilderness. There he struggled with his human poverty and limits, resisted the temptation to be something other than what God had called him to be and stepped into and through his destiny as the Savior of the world. When he finished those temptations, he came out of the wilderness preaching that God’s Kingdom was near. What about us? What about you? If you’re going to “give up something for Lent,” then how about this: give up those less-than-noble calls that would diminish your humanity and dignity, your life in God. And embrace the mission and mandate to be like Christ. If we do that, we might awaken to that kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is very near.