Today is Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. Today we eat the chocolate we may be giving up starting tomorrow.
Lent, the forty-day season preceding Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday, tomorrow. On Ash Wednesday, participants receive ashes on their foreheads as a reminder that from dust we came, and to dust we shall return—not in some morbid zombie sense, but because remembering the brevity of life and our mortality can help us live more holy lives.
Long before the Eastern and Western Church split, and long, long before the Protestant Reformation, Christian believers observed this special season of penance. “Lenctentid” literally means both “springtide” and “March,” the month in which most of Lent falls. Lent has its origins perhaps as far back as the disciples. It is a season of penance, prayer, and self-denial that takes Christ-followers through forty days of reflection and repentance that commence on Ash Wednesday and end on Easter morning.
The point of Lent is not to prove we can deny ourselves and thus walk with our noses in the air. Rather, the reason some give up chocolate or snacks between meals or new purchases or meat or shoes or Facebook is constantly to remind our flesh that the Son of God gave up everything for us. And with the absence of such luxuries or distractions, we can better focus on dying to ourselves. But Lent does not necessarily involve giving up something. It might mean adding something such as extended periods of prayer and meditation culminating in a silent retreat. Or it can involve both the "putting on" and the "taking off." Here are some suggestions for doing so:
- Ask God to help you answer, “In what ways am I indulging myself?"
- Ask yourself, “What non-essentials eat my time and distract me from what matters?” Mocha latte with whipped cream? Words with Friends? Twitter? Also ask, “What practices are missing?” Bible reading/listening? Prayer? Determine what, with the Spirit’s help, you will (secretly) add or give up or both add and give up for forty days.
- Use any freed-up time and/or money for something meaningful. Think about Christ’s great love. Give to the poor. Meditate. Visit the sick.
- Reflect and repent. Take stock of your life in light of eternity.
Share in community. Join with others doing the same. Experience accountability.
If we end up feeling smug or perceiving ourselves as super spiritual for making these minimal sacrifices, we have missed the point. We must have the exact opposite focus: recognizing our need, humbling ourselves, searching our hearts, and seeking to follow fully after the Lord.
Looking for a guide through the season of Lent? Here’s the one I plan to use.
By reflecting on the sacrifice of Christ for 40 days, we can more fully prepare to celebrate his resurrection.
Two years ago, I wrote a longer post on this subject that includes some of what I have written above For more info, go here.