I have been a follower of Jesus for 26 years, spending all of my time worshiping in churches not known for observing the church calendar, not known for following many of the ancient traditions of the Church. The truth is that all local churches have traditions they keep. Traditions, in and of themselves, are not bad. We are after all habit-keeping creatures. We all form patterns. To some degree, we all find comfort in routine. “Lent” was not a part of my vocabulary until about five years ago. If you would have mentioned “Lent” to me ten years ago, I would have quickly thought of that foreign substance in my belly button or that soft material collecting in my dryer vent. In recent years, I have been making an effort to practice Lent and I want to invite you to join me in this Lenten journey.
Lent is forty-day season of prayer and fasting leading up to Easter, Resurrection Sunday.
Followers of Jesus gather every Sunday for worship to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. This is true. We particularly worship on Sunday because this is the day Jesus rose from the dead. The earliest follower of Jesus were nearly all Jewish and they purposely moved their time of worship from Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) to Sunday because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. However, the ultimate day of Christian celebration is Easter. Every Sunday is a mini-celebration of the resurrection leading up to this ultimate day of celebration. So the days of Lent are counted Monday through Saturday. During Lent we do not fast on Sunday. Every Sunday is a feasting day.
So why do I practice Lent?
I did not grow up with this practice. Lent was not a part of my early Christian development. Lent is not a requirement by either Scripture or my church. So why do I invest forty days of my life in this spiritual journey of fasting, prayer, self-denial, and extra attention towards Scripture and devotional reading? Here are my thoughts:
Lent is about Jesus.
The traditional Lenten fast is not merely about the tradition itself. My participation in Lent is not about the novelty of doing something different. It is not a matter of “sticking it” to my evangelical upbringing that devalued the ancient traditions of the faith. Lent, and my participation in it, is about Jesus, plain and simple. (Which is why I am reading Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright during Lent in addition to other Scripture reading.) Lent is a way to identify with Jesus who fasted forty days in the wilderness. (I will not be going without solid food for forty straight days. I will be fasting for complete 24-hour periods and certain meals during the forty days of Lent.) This tradition allows me to share in the sufferings of Jesus, in a small degree, so I can celebrate the joy that comes with resurrection.
Lent creates contrast.
It does not seem to me that we can experience joy without the contrast of some suffering. If all of our Christian experience is “happy-happy, joy-joy” all the time, then Easter rolls around and becomes more of a time for Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies. Please do not misunderstand me. I am pro Bunny. The Bunny, the Bunny, o I love the Bunny! As much as I am pro Bunny, the over-indulgence of chocolate and marshmallow Peeps is a momentary, superficial kind of joy. It is not the same joy experienced after forty days of self-denial. We cannot experience the joy of the resurrection without enduring the sorrow of the cross. We cannot experience the joy of Easter without the sorrow of Lent. Human beings simply require this kind of contrast.
Lent gives me a structured way to focus on less popular spiritual disciplines.
I hate fasting. I can confess this without a hint of guilt. I detest fasting. In all honesty, I enjoy it as much as I enjoy a trip to the dentist. So Lent helps in this regard. It gives me a structured and focused way to fast during a specific block of time. By fasting, I mean abstaining from solid food. On the days (or during the meals) I fast, I continue to drink water. I have also allowed myself to drink coffee during my fast days. Some people choose to give something up for Lent as a form of self-denial. “Giving something up” is a great practice, just remember Sundays are not fasting days. On Sundays you are free to eat and participate in whatever you have given during Lent.
Lent allows me to connect with the ancient roots of my faith.
I find a richness and a sense of depth to my faith by walking down this well-trodden Lenten path. Followers of Jesus for hundreds and hundreds of years have walked this path on the road to the resurrection. For far too long, I was arrogant and self-absorbed with my narrow evangelical world. I would willingly receive the Scriptures from the ancient church and some doctrine, but I had zero desire to receive any of her practices. I was wrong. The traditions of the ancient Church are gifts to the contemporary Church. According to John Wesley, our faith is rooted in a quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, & experience. I need the traditions, the traditional practices of the Church, to live a faith that is less superficial and sentimental.
Lent allows me to repent.
Followers of Jesus are a stranger mixture of sinner and saint. I am no different. If I only claim to be a sinner, I undervalue the work of the Spirit in me, transforming me to look more like Jesus. I certain have grown in Christ, but I have not arrived. If I only claim to be a saint, I tend to ignore my sin, especially those sins that so easily knock me off course. Lent is a forty-day time to repent, that is, to turn from our sins and turn in faith to Jesus. The need for repentance is why we begin Lent on “Ash Wednesday,” which is February 22 this year. (There is a Jewish practice of covering yourself with ashes as a sign of repentance, which is where we get the title Ash Wednesday.) With or without literal ashes, Ash Wednesday, and the forty days of Lent, expose my sin and lead me to repentance.
So join me, join us, in this Lenten journey. I will be leading three, identical, 30-minute Ash Wednesday services at Word of Life Church in St. Joe next week. Services will be at 7AM, noon, & 7PM. I hope you can join us if you are in the St. Joseph area or find a church where you live and participate in their Ash Wednesday service.