Lent: An introduction, a little bit of history, and a few ideas
Ash Wednesday is in a week (February 6th) and will mark the beginning of Lent, so I thought I would share with you all some thoughts I’ve had about Lent, some research and things I’ve learned about it and some ideas of ways to engage in Lent this year that I am contemplating putting into practice.
Lent has a long history. It began in the early church as a time for those who were going to be baptized (baptism happened only once a year on the day before Easter) to prepare themselves for baptism and full acceptance into the church. It was a time for fasting and prayer as well as a time for them to study and learn about Christ and the doctrines of the church. They were to prepare for the new life and new birth that would come with their baptism on Easter. Eventually the rest of the church joined in this practice (some say they did this as a way of showing fellowship with the new believers) and by the Council of Nicene it had become an official season of the church calendar and was established as a 40 day fast of repentance and preparation. It was a time to remember Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, a time to remember the suffering Christ endured on the cross, and it was a time to remember the sin that put Christ on the cross and the sin in our own lives and world.
At its heart Lent is a journey to wholeness, a journey of joining God in his redemptive and redeeming work in the world. But, that journey begins with a journey through brokenness – we join God in his redemptive work of wholeness by first confronting the brokenness in our own lives and in the world around us. We confront the barriers that keep us from God, the barriers that keep us from each other and the barriers that keep us from God’s creation. This is not a onetime act. We do not overcome these barriers in a day or in 40 days, but the idea is that each year we go through this Lenten process and that at the end of it each time we find ourselves closer…closer to the goal of wholeness and of joining God in His loving work in the world.
Lent is not just about giving something up for a few weeks and it’s not just about focusing on our sin and repenting for a few weeks – it’s really about growth. The very word Lent means “Spring” or “springtime” and indeed just as spring is a time when we plant seeds and bury them in darkness it is a time when we plant ourselves in God and focus on and repent of the darkness in ourselves and in our world. It is a time when through repentance we grow and become a thing of beauty and restoration to the world around us. Lent is really about going through a process that should change us, that should bring us closer to being fully the people God has called us and created us to be.
The church has traditionally made this journey through an emphasis on fasting, almsgiving and prayer.
Fasting has a way of making us more aware of what’s really important in life, when we give up that which is not important we realize what is important. Traditionally in the church there was a lot of discrepancy as to how people should Fast and practice avoidance during Lent. Eventually the Western church declared lent to be 40 days long not counting Sundays. It was to include two days of fasting (ash Wednesday and good Friday) which meant that people were only able to eat one meal on those days (usually in the evening) though they were allowed 2 small snacks during the day to keep up their strength but these snacks could not add up to another full meal. For the Western church Lent also included days of “abstinence” on each Friday during Lent, this meant that ever Friday during lent the church community was not suppose to eat meat at all or drink alcohol, fish was an allowed exception to the no meat rule. In the Eastern Church Lent was also 40 days long but included Sundays and they held to much stricter observance of lent. For the Eastern Church all 40 days were days to abstain from all meat and from all dairy and eggs, basically they all became vegans for 40 days. They also abstained from alcohol during this time. In more modern days many protestants who do observe lent practice fasting in a very different way than either the traditional Western or Eastern church - they simply allowed their congregation to choose what they wanted to give up for the 40 days. But, indifferent to what type of fast is practiced the purpose is the same – to join in Christ’s suffering and in the suffering of the world.
But, fasting was never just for the sack of denial and self-discipline (though those things were part of it). There was a broader purpose to the fasting, a purpose to the denial that went beyond the spiritual development that this practice created and touched on a very practical purpose. The money saved during the fast was to be spent in almsgiving – in giving to the poor. This fast was a way to join with the suffering of the world and to play a part in diminishing that suffering. There was an emphasis during lent on giving to and suffering on behalf of the poor and needy in the world. This was the part of lent that I had known nothing of before and this is the part of lent that struck me most.
The third practice of lent is that of prayer. Christ came. He joined us in our suffering - so much so that he joined us in our death. And so at lent when we remember and dwell on the suffering of our Christ it seems only right that we would in thankful penitence turn our hearts and lives back to Him through prayer. It seems right that during this time of remembrance we would talk with him about our own sin remembering that he came and died not just for some distant purpose or person, He came and died for us each as unique individuals that he wanted to be near and connected to. It seems right that during this time of remembrance we would talk with him about the brokenness in our lives and in the world around us. It seems right that during this time of remembrance we would talk to him about the wrong being done in our world and cry out on behalf of ourselves, our neighbors, our nation and society and on behalf of all those around the world. Through Lenten prayer we confess our failure, confess the ways we fall short, confess and recognize our need for a savior. Through Lenten prayer we recommit ourselves to Christ, the His church and to the redeeming work He is doing and desires to do in the world around us. Through Lenten prayer we silence ourselves and listen to Christ’s heart for us and for the world.
I think as I have learned more about Lent I have learned most of all that Lent is not a means and end in itself… it is a beginning. During Lent we dwell on the suffering and hardships of Christ, the suffering and sin in our own life and the suffering and brokenness in our world and we do this in ways that change us. So that when Easter comes we have a real sense of the great glory that is found in Christ’s resurrection – yes our world is broken, yes our own lives are broken but Christ didn’t just suffer he rose and with his resurrection he brought new life for all of us. So after a time of penitence and brokenness we can come to Easter knowing fully the importance and necessity of Christ’s resurrection and rejoicing fully in the complete and eternal fullness of life that He brings. And we can move on from there hopefully further along in our journey, more fully in tune with Christ, with ourselves and with the world around us.
There is a lot of variety in how the church has practiced fasting, almsgiving and prayer during lent and I think as we enter lent it is important for each of us to search our hearts and figure out how best we can practice these Lenten themes in ways that according to God’s unique calling and work in our lives connects us more closely with the Man of Sorrows and the sorrow-filled world around us.
Here are some Ideas of ways to practice and engage more in the Lenten season this year:
- Carry a pocket size cross with you continually throughout lent as a reminder of the season
- Pray through the daily offices throughout lent
- Participate in the stations of the cross
- Fast and/or abstain from something
- Work through Christine Sine’s Lenten guide
- Volunteer somewhere
- Read some of the original church fathers as a way to learn more about the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the work of His church
- Spend some time memorizing scripture during lent
- Set aside time to pray
- Spend some time confessing your brokenness and sin to God and to another person
- Commit to praying for the poor, the brokenhearted, the prisoners, the hungry, and the sick around the world and in your own city/neighborhood
- Wear simple cloths and no jewelry during lent as a symbol of mourning the death and brokenness of our lives and the world
- If you find that you are really busy and don’t have time maybe make your discipline for Lent that you make time, that you say no to added activities and commitments and instead say yes to rest and spending time with God
- Find a charity that you believe in and donate to it financially during lent as a small way to mend brokenness in the world
- Take time to restore a broken relationship in your life
- Make a commitment to have a minimal impact on the environment during Lent in an effort to restore the brokenness of God’s planet – recycle more, walk more, take public transportation, re-use things in an effort to create less garbage, don’t buy a lot of “stuff”, etc.
- Make a commitment to attend church services more often or at least gather with other believers more regularly during lent
- If you are married spend some quality date night time with your spouse during lent as a way to restore and refresh any brokenness in your marriage relationship
- Take time to clean out your house/closet and donate those things you don’t need to those who may need them as a way to restore (in some small way) some of the brokenness in the world
- Take time to educate yourself more about the human rights violations in the world, the injustice in the world, and in general the brokenness in the world and what you can do to participate in restoring wholeness and health to people
- Keep a journal during lent as a means for self examination and prayer
- Spent time meditating on Christ Crucified
- Place a cross somewhere where you will see it regularly during Lent and remember Christ’s sacrifice and his desire for us to sacrifice on behalf of others as well
- Pick a meditative phrase to repeat to yourself throughout the day during lent as a reminder of the meaning of the season – for example “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Or “Lord, in my hand no price I bring; simply to the cross I cling.” Or some other phrase that helps you to focus on the Lenten season
- Watch Christine Sine's Reflections for Lent video
- Participate in the assignment from spirituality2go site
- Participate in the 40 day Jesus Creed Challenge
- Set an extra place at your dinner table each night during Lent as a reminder to “pray that God would fill up the emptiness of those in need.” And as a reminder “that all (no matter their station in life) are invited to come as guests...as family.” Be creative and find ways in your life to remember the brokenness in the world and join God in restoring wholeness and health to all. I’d love to hear any other ideas you may have for practicing the season of Lent and partaking in the sacrifice of Christ. I personally have been really challenged by Lent this year and I look forward to engaging more in this sacred season of the church.
Rejoicing in the journey – Beth Stedman