To Lent or Not to Lent

Lent WordDid I catch your attention with that grammatically incorrect title? This Wednesday, March 5, is Ash Wednesday, a day observed by millions of Christians as the beginning of forty days of repentance, moderation, fasting and attention to the spiritual disciplines. I didn’t grow up with this observance (along with several more that I deeply regret were not part of my religious training), but over the past 25+ years Ash Wednesday and Lent have become profoundly important to me.

First, what is Lent? The word’s Anglo-Saxon root simply means “spring,” while its Latin meaning is related to “forty” and is symbolic of Jesus’ days of fasting in the wilderness. Many Christians are marked with ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday as a symbol of contrition and the beginning of a time which may involve some or all of the practices mentioned above. The forty days of Lent do not include Sundays because that day in the Christian calendar is always one of resurrection celebration, and the entire period is considered preparation, perhaps even a kind of cleansing, so that the “Easter Hallelujahs!” can be more profoundly realized.

Next, why do some Christians, especially those of us with “baptistic” origins, not observe Lent. One reason is that it is not mentioned in the Bible (neither is Christmas or Easter although a Lenten observance goes back even farther than the Christmas celebration). Some fear that if we designate a particular period for fasting and denial, we might be admitting that self-indulgence is OK the rest of the year. (Actually, that might be closer to the truth than I want to consider. Sort of like eating four Hershey© bars on the day before a diet.) Others believe that Lent is “too Catholic” and didn’t we “protest” all that? Thus we’re called Protestants?? Also it might be that a number of Lenten non-observers remember being forced into a ritual without meaning and therefore shun any religious practice that recalls what they believe is shallow or even devoid of  meaning.

BUT…and there almost always is a BUT! If a true Lenten observance includes fasting, moderation, repentance and the practice of spiritual disciplines, why should I not at least periodically include all those in my walk with Christ? I suspect my resistance in the past—admittedly formed by religious prejudice, lack of understanding and improper teaching—also left me with a way out of more complete obedience to Jesus. After all, if I don’t find the word “lent” in the Bible, I’m off the hook, aren’t I?

But then the Holy Spirit whispers: Jesus, and other inspired writers of the Bible, gave specific instructions about fasting (do it but don’t gripe and frown), moderation (fruit of the Spirit is self-control), repentance (if we confess our sins…), spiritual disciplines (pray without ceasing).

Would it hurt to try it for forty days? What might happen if with pure heart I decide to follow the Savior more closely, more humbly, more deeply these forty days? Even asking Him to form my withering self-discipline into something more akin to a Kingdom value? I suspect that it wouldn’t involve giving up something (as is often prescribed) as much as adding something, such as usually- ignored service to the usually ignored? Maybe it will just be starting each day from now until April 20 with a simple prayer: “Here I am, Lord. Do with me as you will. I’m yours.” Maybe I need ashes on my forehead as a sign of humility.

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