Lent is heavy. Lent is serious. It’s a time of reflection and self-analysis and intentional consideration of what we believe and stand for as Christians. But, as dark as this sounds, if we “do” Lent right, we will emerge in 40 days with a renewed understanding of the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice for us and a renewed trust in God’s sovereignty in the light of the greatest spectacle and celebration that the universe has ever known: Easter.
SO, WHAT IS LENT?
Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God.
WHEN IS LENT?
It’s the forty days before Easter, and starts with Ash Wednesday. Lent excludes Sundays because every Sunday is like a little Easter. Basically, it’s about one-tenth of a year (like a tithe of time). So this year, Lent is from February 26 – April 11, 2020.
SO THE REAL BEGINNING OF LENT IS ASH WEDNESDAY?
Yes. Ash Wednesday usually begins with a service where we recognize our mortality, repent of our sins, and return to our loving God. We recognize life as a precious gift from God, and turn our lives back toward Jesus Christ. We may make resolutions and commit to change our lives over the next forty days so that we might be more like Christ. In an Ash Wednesday service, usually a minister or priest marks a small sign of the cross on a person’s forehead with ashes.
In Jewish and Christian history, ashes are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality: because when we die, our bodies eventually decompose and we become dust. Repentance: because long ago, when people felt remorse for something they did, they would put ashes on their head and wear “sackcloth” (scratchy clothing) to remind them that sin is uncomfortable and leads to a sort of death of the spirit. This was their way of confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.
WHERE DO THE ASHES COME FROM?
On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem while people waved palms and cheered him on. Less than a week later, Jesus was killed. The palms that were waved in joy became ashes of sorrow. We get ashes for Ash Wednesday by saving the palms from Palm Sunday the previous year, burning them, and mixing them with a little water or oil. It’s symbolic.
WHAT DO CHRISTIANS DO WITH ASHES?
At an Ash Wednesday service, attendees are invited to come forward to receive the ashes. The minister will make a small cross on your forehead by smudging the ashes. While the ashes remind us of our mortality and sin, the cross reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection (life after death) and forgiveness. It’s a powerful, non-verbal way that we can experience God’s forgiveness and renewal as we return to Jesus.
SO WHAT IS LENT?
At Jesus’ baptism the sky split open, the Spirit of God (which looked like a dove), descended and landed on Jesus, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, My Beloved, with whom I am pleased.” Afterward, as told in Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Spirit, and here he fasted and prayed for 40 days. During his time in the desert, he was tempted by Satan and found clarity and strength to resist temptation. Afterward, he was ready to begin his ministry.
Perhaps Jesus needed some time with God to sort through the major changes happening in his life? Maybe he needed to get away from family, friends and the familiar routine in order to see God (and himself) more clearly. Perhaps he wanted some intentional time with God as he searched for direction and answers. Like Jesus, we may need to take some serious time to pray and listen for God.
WHY “DO” LENT? HOW DO I START?
Are you searching for something more? Tired of running in circles, but not really living life with direction, purpose or passion? It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the drama of work, school, family, and relationships. Our lives are filled with distractions that take us away from living a life with Christ. We try to fill the emptiness inside us with mindless TV, meaningless chatter, stimulants, alcohol, too many activities, or other irrelevant stuff. We run away from life and from God.
Lent is a great time to “repent” – to return to God and re-focus our lives to be more in line with Jesus. It’s a 40-day trial run in demonstrating sacrifice (without calling attention to it), changing your lifestyle, and letting God change your heart. You might try one of these practices for Lent:
FASTING: Some people have been known to go without food during the day. But that’s not the only way to fast. You can fast by cutting out some of the things in your life that distract you from God. Some Christians use the whole 40 days to fast from sweets, TV, social media, alcohol, or meat as a way to purify their bodies and minds. You might skip one meal a day and use that time to pray instead. Or you can give up some activity like gaming or a favorite TV show to spend time outside enjoying God’s creation. What do you need to let go of or “fast” from in order to focus on God? What clutters your calendar and life? How can you simplify your life in terms of what you eat, say, or do?
SERVICE: Some Christians take something on for Christ. You can collect food or basic hygiene products for the needy, volunteer once a week to tutor children, or work for reform and justice in your community. You can commit to help a different stranger, co-worker, or friend every day of Lent. Serving others is one way we serve God.
PRAYER: Christians also use Lent as a time of intentional prayer. You can pray while you walk, create music, or art as a prayer to God, or savor a time of quiet listening. All can be ways of becoming more in tune with God.
Christians from many different traditions celebrate Lent. How will you use the time to grow closer to God?
TOP TEN LIST: THINGS YOU CAN TRY FOR THE LENTEN SEASON
- Try an electronic fast. Give up TV, video games, texting, tweeting, email, and all things electronic for one day every week. (or every day of Lent!) Use the time to read & pray.
- Start a prayer habit. Say a prayer every time you brush your teeth, hear an ambulance, or check your e-mail. Before you text someone, pray for them.
- Read one chapter in the Bible each day. (Matthew’s a good book to start with. Psalms, too.)
- Forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it (maybe even yourself.)
- Give up soft drinks, fast food, tea, or coffee. Give the money you would have spent on those to help others in crisis.
- Create a daily quiet time. Spend 30 minutes a day in silence and prayer.
- Cultivate a life of gratitude. Write someone a thank you letter each week and be aware of how many people have helped you along the way.
- Go out of your way to be extra kind to someone each day.
- Pray for others you see as you go to and from work or school, or in your daily activities.
- Volunteer one hour or more each week: church, animal shelters, nursing homes, community missions, or just answering an obvious need in your neighborhood or community.
– adapted from Rev. Penny Ford (Alabama)