Today is the last day of Epiphany (Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday) and tomorrow is the first day of Lent (Ash Wednesday). Most Christians see no problems with celebrating Christmas and Easter and the feasts that come with these two major celebrations, Epiphany and Pentecost. It’s the times of preparation for these two major feasts (Christmas and Easter) that are questioned, Advent and Lent (and especially Lent). And it’s understandable. It seems that the only reasons we hear for observing Lent are wrong reasons (e.g., we should give up meat to honor the animals who provide so much food for us gluttonous Americans; therefore we all ought to observe Lent by eating a piece of celery and saving a cow’s life — at least for 40 more days). And if it’s not something really dumb, the reason seems to center around atoning for our sins by acts of self-denial (in some way or another). No wonder people are suspicious of Lent.
Lent is the season set aside by the Church as a time of preparation for the feast of Easter. This season lasts 40 days (not counting Sundays). In the Scripture, the number forty is the number associated with trials. Lent is a time for self-examination. It is to be a time when we recall that our sins made the sufferings and death of Jesus necessary. Thus, it is a time when we as the people of God give special attention to repentance (confessing our sins and devoting ourselves to new obedience). There are, of course, right ways and wrong ways to do this, but the emphasis is a good one.
But someone says, “So why do we need Lent to examine ourselves and repent? Aren’t we supposed to do that year round?” Of course, we should repent of our sins and seek spiritual growth at all times, not just during this season. But I could ask the same question in regard to Christmas or Easter. Why have a special season to focus upon the incarnation or the resurrection? Shouldn’t we remember the incarnation and the resurrection every day? Sure we should. But Christmas and Easter give us the opportunity to focus upon these amazing realities and celebrate them. They call us to meditate upon the glory of God becoming man and breaking the power of sin and death — and thus, they help us to remember them every day. Lent does a similar thing. It gives us a stated season, a formal structure for all of us to examine ourselves and repent of our sins as individuals and as a church. Lent underscores for us the importance of dealing with our sins so that we don’t ignore them the rest of the year. And it gives us an occasion to do this together, in communion.
Lent, therefore, is a time for focusing upon our sins, a time for asking questions about our spiritual health: What are my besetting sins, and how can I work and pray for change? What idols have captured my imagination so that my love for the living God has grown cold? In what ways is my devotion to Christ and his church less than wholehearted? The Lenten season is like an annual physical. It’s an annual checkup on the well-being of our hearts and lives.
This is why fasting and an intensified practice of prayer have always been key disciplines in Lent. By abstaining from food, we are reminded that by nature we deserve no good thing, indeed, we are reminded that we deserve death. Fasting enables us to remember that we stand by grace and it enables us to appreciate the good things God gives us even more. Fasting also reminds us that the good things God gives are in fact gifts from Him — things we should enjoy and give thanks for, but never worship. Fasting encourages us to turn away from idols — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — by focusing us upon the One who gives us all things richly to enjoy.
Of course, none of this is magical or automatic. Fasting and prayer are not to be done because they somehow merit God’s favor. They don’t. Lent, like all the other ritualistic activities we do in life, can be dangerous. And we need to be very careful to avoid the problems we have sometimes seen in others:
1. Remember that though seasons of preparation and fasting are useful, observing Lent is completely a matter of freedom for Christians. Lent doesn’t make the participant automatically more holy or pleasing in God’s sight than the non-participant (nor should the non-participant think himself superior to the participant). The issue is not participation or non-participation, but growing in faithfulness to God.
2. Remember that disciplines like fasting do not subdue the flesh. That which enables us to die to sin and sinful desires is the Word and Spirit of Christ.
3. Remember that the point of Lent is not to give up pleasures, but to give up sin. Some get all caught up in giving up chocolate or steak for Lent. But the point of Lent is to give up idols. Just as it’s easier to write a check than it is to spend time in actually showing mercy, so it’s far easier to give up a steak than it is to avoid sinful anger or to break off your lusts. The point of Lent is not to give up chocolate; the point is to turn away from sin and grow in holiness.
4. As we go through Lent, we need to remember the goal of the season. It is not to be morose and sad or sinfully introspective. Rather, it is to be enabled to see the greatness of God’s grace and mercy toward us so that we are stirred to walk even more faithfully. Just as a time of sickness enables us to appreciate the days of health that we enjoy and just as the loss of a friend or loved one enables us to appreciate our remaining friends and family even more — so, Lent should enable us to rejoice all the more in the work of our Savior in suffering and dying and rising again for our sakes. Lent is like a journey but the end of the journey is not at the cross on Good Friday but at the empty tomb on Easter. Because we are united by the Holy Spirit to the resurrected Jesus, the conqueror of sin and death, we can face our own sins and weaknesses with faith and hope. In Jesus, we know that we are forgiven and accepted by God, and we have hope for real healing and transformation in our lives. And that in the end is the value of having a corporate season of repentance.