What Is Lent?
We don't know much about how the first-century Christians treated the forty days before Resurrection Sunday. The Bible itself mentions nothing about it. But by the second century, the church was starting to use that season as a time for training new believers about how to rightly think, live, and believe as Christians. (The churchly word for this training is 'the catechumenate'.) This was done, in part, by a collective reliving of the Scriptural accounts of Christ's final days before He was killed. It was done with the whole church community as they, too, relived it, and fasted together. The end of the training period was Holy Week, and Easter would be the day that the new believers would be baptized into the Church. As the Roman world became mostly Christian and more people had already been baptized as children, the season (known in Latin as Quadragesima) began to shift meaning in a way which would be of great value for new and long-time Christians alike. Lent would become a time for looking at the depth of one's own sin, and turning away from them. A time for learning what it means to follow Christ, and to listen to the Spirit. A time for actually going about changing one's ways to be more as Christ would have them be.
Lent is a time when many people turn their gaze toward Good Friday and ask themselves, 'How dare I force someone who loves me this much to go through something this awful?' Perhaps they see the Cross and ask, 'Lord, what can I do to stop doing this to You? How can I love you better?' Many times in the Gospels, Jesus called on people to repent, to turn away from doing evil. So the first impulse of love is to try to do things that Jesus would want of you.
But then, we get stuck and gummed up. We fail, as we always do. One of the things we learn in Lent is how inescapable our sin is, how far we are from being complete, how fell is the nature of our divide from God. When we struggle like mad to give some tiny aspect of our lives over to God, we discover how maddeningly out of reach a whole life of godliness is. We can't do anything to fix our relationship with God. We're too far gone. No matter how passionately we might want not to be the cause of Jesus' suffering, we end up driving another nail into Jesus, making Him carry an even bigger burden. (Now, picture us at our less passionate moments....). Even when I'm at my best, I'm still enough by myself to execute the God who loves me.
And yet... that's why He did what He did, something only He could do. All we can do is collapse at Jesus' feet. And trust Him. We can't get there from here, but He can. He will take us, and the Holy Spirit will lead us along that road. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can love God better, we can love our species, our planet, and ourselves better. The Scriptures tell us the key parts of what we need to know, and other believers (also led by the Spirit) can also help. Christ gives us His body and His blood (Holy Communion), His presence among us and with us and in us. Knowing that, we can stand ready for Holy Week.
Lent As Self-Surrender
Lent is the season for the experience of giving your life over -- in each moment, bodily, deliberately -- to Christ and to what the Spirit is showing you. God wants you to surrender yourself, and let the Spirit work in you. In Lent, we take responsibility for our acts and thoughts, and treat certain of those as the killers they are. Lent is self-discovery of the parts of ourselves we don't want to discover, through prayer, fasting, and other disciplines. It is the opening up, the turning over to God, the repenting of our sins, the turning away from that which does not please God. Yet there is just a glimpse of Easter through the heavy clouds of Good Friday -- that Christ has taken the burden, and you don't have to carry it anymore. Don't you want to follow that kind of a God?
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When is Lent?
Lent starts on Ash Wednesday (this year, it's 10 February 2016). That means Palm Sunday is 20 March 2016 as well as the first day of Spring. Good Friday is 25 March 2016 and Easter is 27 March 2016. Lent is 40 days long, but Sundays aren't counted in the 40. The 40 days match the time span of Jesus when he fasted in the desert preparing to starting his public ministry.
The tone of Lenten worship and church life changes, starting with the worship services of Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), all the way to Palm Sunday, and then again to Easter. Gone are exuberant praises (even the words "Glory!" and "Alleluia"), loud music, and sermons about joy, pride, politics, authority, evangelism, fund-raising, or building programs. This is especially so in Eastern Orthodoxy, which calls this season the 'Great Lent'. The feeling is subdued, with a pensive hush, in awe of God, in sharp awareness of how each of us -- and all of us together -- are not as God calls us to be, and because of that, will eventually die. We are not masters of our lives but are instead subject to the tides of life and are thus much less than God. For many Christians, this mood defines Lent. It's good practice to wear simple clothing in subdued colors and grays, without frills or jewelry. Though, maybe we should resist going over-the-top, such as going to Sunday services wearing the real clothing of Lent: ash-covered sackcloth. In liturgical churches, and many others, Ash Wednesday is marked by the ancient rite of the imposition of ashes (dating back at least 1000 to 1200 years). At the start of the Ash Wednesday service, the believers are asked to come forward to the altar. The minister dips his/her thumb into a small tin of ashes (burnt from last year's Palm Sunday palms, with a drop of olive oil), and with it marks onto each person's forehead the sign of the cross, saying the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" (from Ecclesiastes 3:20). Roman Catholics have an elaborate rite of blessing the ashes, including prayers and holy water. To everything there is a season. Lent is not the season for talk of victorious living. It is the season to be focused on turning from wrong-doing and dedicating anew to the kind of life Jesus taught us to live.
There are some people whose commemorations take place during Lent most years. (Lent and Easter move around, while the commemorations do not.) These include Gregory the Great (a key archbishop of Rome, 12 March), Patrick (missionary to Ireland, 17 March), Jonathan Edwards (US great awakener, 22 March), Oscar Romero (bishop in El Salvador and martyr, 24 March) Hans Nielsen Hauge (Norwegian pietist leader, 29 March), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German theologian, 09 April), and Anselm (bishop and theologian, 21 April). A major festival in Catholic circles is the Annunciation (25 March), which is the traditional day that the archangel Gabriel tells Mary of God's great plan that would come through the child of her womb. (Nine months -- shoppers were not the first to count the days till Christmas!)
Lenten devotionals from Spirithome.com, also in downloadable audio where noted:
Ash Wednesday or in mp3.
First Sunday in Lent, in mp3.
Second Sunday in Lent,
Palm Sunday, or in mp3.
Maundy Thursday, or in mp3
And, there's pages on the
the Three Days and the Easter season,
More on the church calendar.
Check it out !
How Do We Live Lent?
Most of what is done and learned in Lent is true for the rest of the year, too, but with a different feel. Most people couldn't even dream of keeping their intense focus all year on what Jesus did and what we're to do with that. Forty days is long enough not to be short-term, but too short to be thought of as a substitute for year-round Christian living. A short burst, such as the forty days of Lent, can go a long way. But only for those who make some hard decisions.
Giving Something Up For Lent
In Lent, it's traditional to give up (or 'fast from') something(s) that we do a lot of and that we find pleasure in. This giving up or fasting is done:
- as a discipline for learning self-control, to free our minds from the chase after material things, to tell ourselves 'no' and make it stick;
- to identify with Christ's sufferings, and remember what the true pleasures are for followers of Christ;
- as an act of sorrow over our wrongdoings and our state of sin.
It may at times be about forensic guilt (as in TV's CSI or Law and Order, the 'I did it' kind of guilt), but it's not about the psychological kind of guilt (where God is pictured like a nagging mother, saying just the right word to make you feel sorry for yourself). In fact, it prepares you for Easter, in which a risen Christ leaves you no cause (or even room) for such guilt or shame.
Sometimes we don't notice how certain things we do have gained power over us and dictate our actions. In Lent fasts, we discover these things and give them up so that God can be in charge. Franciscans use the term 'detachment': the less that 'stuff' preoccupies your life, the more room there is for God, as well as for yourself and for other people.
Christian parents sometimes use the season to teach their children more about taking responsibility in God's presence for their actions.
Food Fasts for Lent
The most common thing is to fast from food for Lent. To Catholics, this means giving up meats on Fridays for the season, or to fast entirely for one day a week. For me, fasting is tough, because I enjoy eating. For diabetics, it can be dangerous if not designed with blood sugar levels in mind. You might try giving up pizza or fast food or alcohol or snacks (betcha you can't do it...). Food fasts are not just the most traditional way of living Lent, they're also the simplest to do, since we all eat routinely every day.
If giving up food isn't much of a task for you, choose something else that you have to make a serious effort to give up. For many people, that may mean 40 days without:
- impulse shopping
- catalog shopping
- leaving flaming comments on blogs and forums
- dance clubbing
- living off your credit card
--- anything which most relates to behaviors that are especially sticky for you, as well as the activities that provide you the opportunity to do them. Whatever that is, it is where your Lenten discipline must be centered. For instance, this year my detachment discipline will be about trying to cram too much into a day. I will aim not to feel like I have to do everything right now. I will give space for silence, rest, people, and surprises, and I will more often treat the unexpected as a friend instead of an intruder.
One very old tradition was to wear the same austere and simple set of clothing throughout Lent. Then, on Easter, a new and much brighter outfit would be worn. Easter clothing would usually include, for women, elaborate headgear. (Remember that women in the past were supposed to keep a covering on their head in church at all times.) In Lent, especially among stricter sects, head coverings were supposed to be plain and simple headgear that would attract no notice. For Easter, which is a celebration, they brought out the bolder and often audacious headgear, which they would happily parade around.
Many people use Lent for taking the complexity out of parts of their lives. They take a Lenten fast from lifestyle clutter. They pare down their schedules, and concentrate on activities that matter most. If you work overtime, what are you working overtime for? For a real human need, or in order to buy more stuff? Others look for one area of their life in which they use power or authority over others, and then try to find ways to use less power to do it. A fast is a reflection of your awareness of sin, and your sorrow over it. It's best to choose one thing at a time. Then as that takes hold, give up another different thing, as the Spirit leads you. Or, maybe, give of your time and money to charitable activities that help those who suffer. (Need funds for that? Use the money you would have spent on the food or activities you're giving up.) Hopefully, much of the change will keep going after Lent is done.
Lent Is Not About Self-Hatred
Jesus is not looking for self-torture, self-hatred, woe-is-me thinking, 40-day starvation and oceans of tears. (Many great saints and plain fools have thought that's what He wanted.) Lent is for soberly looking into yourself and getting down to what's real. Self-hatred is not being real. How could it be right to despise someone whom God loves and treasures? The Sundays aren't counted in the 40 days of Lent, because every Sunday carries with it a part of the glow of Easter Sunday. So it's not all gloom and doom. But even on the Sundays, the theme of repentance (turning from our ungodly ways) holds true. When you repent, you please God whether you fast or not, and that is what most counts for Lent.
Lent's strictness and sternness doesn't mean you can't cozy up to the one you love, or discover new love. It doesn't mean you can't dance a St. Patrick's Day jig, or enjoy a good college basketball game, or get a belly laugh from a funny moment, or have a flash of ecstasy during worship or prayer. Rather, in Lent you put a stop to the fevered pursuit of pleasure, especially pleasure from the entertainment field's realm of fantasy, and instead let joy seek you in the real world. Then, when the moments of joy come, they're recognized as a gift from a loving God. Just as life itself is.
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Adding Something For Lent
Lent is not all about giving things up. It's also about adding good things to our lives or to others' lives -- the kind of good things that follow on what Jesus asks of us, especially that which relates to what we're giving up. Try these:
- Reconcile yourself to someone you don't like, or even hate or did something bad to, or just intentionally stayed away from.
- Do acts of kindness for people, just because the opportunity's there; give them little tastes of God's love.
- If you haven't taken the time lately to be in a refreshing, natural spot, do so. I live on Long Island, which has wonderful beaches and bayside spots to enjoy some peace and rest. You have places where you live, too. Even if it's a brief stay, even a half-hour or so, try it.
- Take some time to study about what causes poverty. Follow the threads as far as you can. Not only does it better help you serve Christ, but you also add into yourself a useful education in economics, sociology, and biology.
- Study, meditate, and pray over one or two Bible passages for each day, through a daily lectionary (assigned Bible readings for each day), the Daily Office (Scripture-based devotions for set times of day), or devotional booklets or email lists.
- Think upon something ordinary that you do every day, and think about God while doing it, in a way that ties into what you're doing. Or think of a place you come to regularly, and each time think where Christ might be in this place, what Christ might do there, or what you might be led to do for Christ.
- Check out your ethnic heritage. How do Christians in it mark the season? There are, for example, Irish carghas and Italian quaresima traditions that may be helpful to you.
- Attend special worship services. Perhaps it's a liturgical church's daily morning or evening prayer service (Matins and Vespers). Perhaps it's a Wednesday Lenten service. Or maybe it's time you started going to a Sunday morning services every Sunday, at least for the season.
- Try to find a new way every day to bring to mind Jesus' death on the cross, and why it happened.
During Lent and Easter, our Facebook page will feature much of the best thought-provoking seasonal articles from other Web sites and blogs, as they are being posted. It's a good way to journey deeper into Lent.
- Creighton University's Collaborative Ministry Lent site.
- Kir-Shalom's huge Lent/Easter site (in two parts, because there's so much to visit...).
- an Orthodox Lenten Triodion. (They call the season "the Great Lent", the season of the bright sadness.)
- Orthodox theological writer Alexander Schmemann on the Great Lent, posted by Seth Earl.
- Roman Catholic Lent (Quadragesima) information on American Catholic, and the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent. These reflect a more-or-less standard Catholic view of Lent.
- A Q and A on Lent, from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site.
- Frank Senn, a Lutheran educator, on Lenten disciplines.
- Worship.ca's Lent / Easter Resources. Especially helpful for worship services.
- the intergenerational Generations in Faith Together (GIFT), from Faith Inkubators, which can be started in a Lent seasonal form.
- Dürer's art and Bach's music combine for the Passion Music and Imagery site, from Boston College.
- Ken Collins' Lent pages.
- CRI Institute's Lent seasonal page (Protestant) by Dennis Bratcher.
- Andrew Santella on Protestants doing Lent.
- Renovare's Life Explorations materials.
- A 'New Liturgy' recording especially for celebrating Ash Wednesday and early Lent outside of a church setting, Lord Have Mercy.
- The Work of the People, Travis Reed's visual Lent liturgical loops, taking it beyond just the ear. Use the site's search to find visuals for church use or personal inspiration.