Saying that I am practicing Lent still feels a little funny, considering I grew up in a non-denominational church which (as far as I remember) did not practice many formal Christian traditions. What I knew about Lent consisted of my Catholic friends loudly declaring what they were giving up and that they were not eating red meat on Fridays. I had no clue why they were doing these things, and I thought that perhaps they were a little crazy. It was not until after college that I started attending a church that embraced liturgy and I began learning about the church calendar and the purpose for observing seasons like Lent and Advent.
I love the way Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter describes the season and purpose of Lent:
Lent is traditionally associated with penitence, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. It is a time for “giving things up” balanced by “giving to” those in need. Yet whatever else it may be, Lent should never be morose – an annual ordeal during which we begrudingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement. After all, it is meant to be the church’s springtime, a time when, out of the darkness of sin’s winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges.
The first year I practiced Lent, I was still fighting the spirit of the season. I was not right with God and I only half-heartedly tried to observe it. The second year I practiced Lent, I was open to whatever God wanted to do in me, and it was one of the sweetest times of communion both with God and my church family. Last year it was a struggle, but still worth it. While still feeling very much a Lenten newbie after only three years of practice, here is what I have learned so far from giving Lent a chance.
Lent asks us to both practice sacrifice and discipline.
Yes, Lent is a season for sacrifice, but it also a season for adding in worthwhile disciplines. Lent isn’t about torturing yourself while abstaining from your vices and cursing God as you frantically count down the days until Easter. What if you gave up a TV show you knew you are a little too invested in and instead spent that time engaging with your family? What if you chose to give up a little luxury in order to give to those who need it? This year, I have chosen to give up one week night for six weeks straight to spend in prayer for my city and our church community. I am also purposing to spend more time reading God’s word (thanks YouVersion!) and devotionals related to Lent. I am trying to be fully aware of this season, and not just let it pass me by.
Lent provides a framework for confession.
Nick and I attended an Ash Wednesday service held by Trinity Grace Church to mark the beginning of Lent. I was not sure what to expect, but last year, I really missed participating in the ritual of Ash Wednesday. I was kind of surprised that I felt myself becoming emotional and convicted as we prayed communal prayers. We prayed out loud together, asking God to forgive us for the ways in which we choose ourselves over our neighbor, how we turn away from the poor and the homeless, how we have been negligent in caring for the world God created. As I said those words, my heart stirred. How often do I admit the darkness of my heart out loud? Corporate confession is a good practice. I knew that what I was saying was true – too often I focus on myself rather than others. I was reminded that I want and need to live my life differently.
Lent calls us into community.
Like the rest of our faith, Lent is something we are meant to do together. It is a distinct opportunity to walk alongside brothers and sisters in Christ and share our triumphs and failures as we reflect on Christ, who he is and what he has done for us. It should be the most joyous time of the Christian calendar. Gathering for Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday allows us the opportunity to experience what God is doing, not just in us as individuals, but as a small part of the church universal. When I left the service on Wednesday night, I was so humbled by the hundreds of believers who came together to walk through this ancient tradition, and by the knowledge that it was not just us, but people all over the world aligning themselves with God and His purposes for this season.
If you are practicing Lent, what are you abstaining from or adding to your life? What was your reasoning behind it? What are you learning during these 46 days?