If we can take that concept and modify it a little, we come up with another statement that I believe is very relevant to us today. And that is this: “You don’t have to be Catholic to love Lent”.
And I say that because historically, it has been the Catholics and Orthodox churches that have recognized Lent; but in more recent years a growing number of non-catholic churches have been participating in this annual event.
Many of us have heard of Lent, but for most of us Lent is still a mystery. We have a vague concept that it has something to do with food, and some of us might even know that it begins on Ash Wednesday (a few days from now), but we don’t know much more. We wonder what Lent is, and perhaps more importantly, what place it can have in our lives.
What does Lent mean? The word “Lent” comes from the [Teutonic / Germanic] word for springtime; probably because it happens in the spring. Some have suggested that Lent can be seen as a time for a spiritual spring-cleaning; a time to take spiritual inventory and clean out the things that mess up our lives. And that makes sense because Lent is often associated with getting our spiritual lives in order; whether it’s through fasting, self-denial, sacrifice or even simplicity - getting back to the basics of life; asking, “do I really need this and that in my life.
As I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that a good theme verse for Lent would be Hebrews 12:1: “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
This verse encompasses so much of meaning of Lent; a time to put ourselves in a position where we can recognize the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles. A time for us to take a look at our lives and really examine what’s going on; where we’re headed, and what’s helping and what’s hindering – kind of like taking a spiritual inventory (or, if you’re the military type, think of it as a spiritual boot camp).
In short, Lent is a period of time when we specifically focus on our personal spiritual condition and take the steps necessary to walk closer with the Lord.
When does Lent begin? It is very fitting that Lent begins on what is called “Ash Wednesday”. Many times in the Old Testament, when people were in mourning, they would sit in ashes. Ashes were a symbol of mourning and repentance. (Job, Mordecai, Ninevites). And so it is, that for many Christians, the season of Lent begins with the symbolic placing of ashes, often mixed with oil, on their forehead to symbolize repentance.
Sometimes we balk at symbolism and ritual – kind of like we’re afraid of it. But we don’t need to be. There’s nothing wrong with symbolism or ritual – provided that people participate in it with the right intentions.
For example; we encourage all believers to be baptized. Baptism is full of symbolism. But if a person is being baptized just for the sake of doing it, then baptism won’t mean anything. Same with communion. Same with any other ritual. But that doesn’t make the ritual any less valid.
And of course, the same is also true with the 40 days of Lent. If you’re wondering why it’s 40 days, it’s because the fasting of Lent is modeled after the fasts of Moses (before receiving the Ten commandments), Elijah, and of course, Jesus, before he began his public ministry.
Now, if you’re the quick calculating type, you’ll know that there are more than 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and that’s because Sundays are exempt from Lent. It’s not that we don’t need Spiritual Growth and Discipline on Sundays, but Sundays are “the Lord’s Day” and have always been days of celebration.
So how exactly do we participate in Lent?
Historically, the primary means of participating in Lent has been through fasting. That’s the oldest tradition.
Now, there are all sorts of fasts, and in some church traditions it can get rather complicated. Some fasts required you to abstain from all meat, except on Fridays when you could have fish. Some fasts were required of anyone between age 18 and 59, unless their health prevented it. Some fasts permitted one regular meal a day. Some fasts included no dairy products, etc, etc.
The fact is, the method of fasting has varied throughout the centuries; but one thing that has not changed is the focus – and that is spiritual discipline. The whole purpose of fasting is a spiritual exercise, not a dietary exercise. The goal isn’t to lose a few pounds; it’s to restore spiritual discipline.
And of course, it’s not just food that we can fast from. Today, many people give up other things instead of, or along side of food. For some people, their “fast” might include television, or computers, or social networking (that’s becoming more and more popular these days – especially with young people). Really, anything that might be taking control of our lives could be a suitable thing to fast.
Lent gives us that opportunity to enter into that spiritual exercise of doing away with whatever it is that might be taking over our lives. But regardless of what we “fast”, we need to accompany our fasting with prayer. And that’s the key.
Ezra 8:23: “So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer”.
The church at Antioch wanted to send Barnabas and Saul on a mission, but it was only “after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:3).
And later on, when Paul and Barnabas were appointing elders in the churches, Acts 14:23 says, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.”
We would do well to spend time in fasting and prayer. But what are we to pray for?
I suggest we go back to Hebrews 12:1 and ask ourselves what are the things that hinder and the sins that so easily entangle. What are the things or situations or habits that are taking control of our lives? What are things or situations or habits that are causing complexity and chaos?
Is there something in my life that I should be doing without? Is there something in my life that is causing me to be distracted from my spiritual well being? Is there something that the Lord would tell me; it’s time to give it up? Is there something that would simplify my life? And that’s maybe the “key word” I want us to focus on.
I suggest that this year, for Lent, we all ask ourselves this simple question: What do I need to do to lead a simpler life? Better yet, take that question to prayer. What are the things that are making my life complicated? Is there any “baggage” that is slowing me down or tripping me up? Is there something I can do without; something that has taken control over my life?
Think about it. Pray about it. And, as the Lord leads you, consider turning it over to Him. After all, you don’t have to be Catholic to love lent!