“What are you giving up for Lent?”
For many Protestants, our only knowledge of Lent is what we perceive as excessive asceticism on the part of other Christians, often preceded by binging on Mardi Gras. We connect the season only with “giving up” something.
Because today is Mardi Gras, I propose that we take a closer look. Just because some people abuse a spiritual practice, does that warrant our dismissing it altogether?
“Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday.” And Fat Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, which happens tomorrow and which marks the beginning of Lent—the forty-day season leading up to Easter. 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 rather because remembering the brevity of life and our mortality can help us live holy lives. The Bible’s authors often connect ashes with repentance and grief. In the case of Lent, we grieve and repent over our own waywardness.
Long before the Eastern and Western Church split and long, long before the Protestant Reformation, the cloud of witnesses who preceded us in Christ observed a special season of penance leading up to Easter. The word “Lent” has Anglo-Saxon roots. Lencten meant “spring,” as in the season following winter, and 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. The apostle John probably mentored Polycarp, who discipled Irenaeus, who died in AD 203. Eusebius quotes Irenaeus’s mention of Lent in an epistle he wrote to the pope, Victor I: “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end. Such variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers” (cited in Eusebius’s History of the Church, V, 24). Clearly, controversies about Lent are as old as the practice. Nevertheless, why not keep the baby and throw out the bathwater?
Lent 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 with celebration at sunrise on Easter morning.
The point of Lent is not to prove to ourselves that we can deny ourselves and therefore 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 to constantly 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 self. But Lent does not necessarily have to mean 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."
As my friend Ruth Haley Barton says, “The real question of the Lenten season is how will I clear out the junk and garbage in my life so that I can be restored to God in some fresh way? What are the disciplines that will open up space for God to create a clean heart and new spirit in me?”
Such clearing out and space-opening are worthy goals, regardless of our denominational affiliation. So for those wishing to participate, I offer some how-to’s:
1. Ask God, “What rooms of my life need spring cleaning?”
2. Ask yourself, “What non-essentials eat up my time and distract me from what matters?” Shopping? Eating out? Mocha latte with whipped cream? Twitter? Binge-watching Downton Abbey or the latest documentaries? Prayerfully determine that, with the help of the Spirit, you will add and and/or give up for forty days.
3. Determine, with the Spirit’s help, to use any freed-up time and/or money for something meaningful. Give to the poor. Fill the free time with prayer, meditation, or memorization of a portion of Scripture. Do some reflective reading. One year my friend gave up listening to the radio on her way to work and instead played a CD of the Bible. In the process, she gained a renewed mind.
4. Reflect. Check out the “Lent” section in the Book of Common Prayer and follow the meditations leading up to and including Holy Week.
5. Share in community. Consider taking part in Instagram’s photo journey of 40 days of Lent. Each day participants post a photo with a designated #hashtag, such as “dust.”
If we end up feeling smug or perceiving ourselves as super spiritual, we have missed the point of Lent. We must have the exact opposite focus: recognizing our need, humbling ourselves, searching our hearts and seeking to follow fully after the Lord.
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23–4)
(Image used with permission.)