Ashes to Easter – What is Lent?
It’s a common question, but one that’s worth asking, I think. If you google this question, you will get right around 50 million results! Depending on the context, you will get one of two main answers – “Lent” is either the past tense of the word “lend”, or it is the period immediately preceding Easter. Not to distract from the vital importance of learning the difference between past and present verbs (and don’t even get me started on the shockingly common confusion between “borrow” and “lend”!), I want to talk about the latter. It is well known that meditation is an effective tool in stress management, an important aspect of the autoimmune protocol. In fact, the steps you take to change and correct your diet can all be for naught if you can’t manage your stress levels. My meditation comes mostly in the form of prayer and worship. This healing journey is helping me to grow physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Prayer is especially on my mind as Lent began this past Wednesday.
Lent is the period of forty days (excluding Sundays) which comes before Easter in the Christian calendar, traditionally a time of reflection, prayer, and preparation. It is preceded by Shrove Tuesday and begins with Ash Wednesday. It ends on the Saturday before Easter, also known as Holy Saturday.
Lent is one of the most meaningful seasons of the church calendar to me. There are few times in the year as rich and special to me as preparing to celebrate my Saviour’s resurrection, from the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, to the triumphant celebration of Easter Sunday, the biggest event in Christianity. The 40-day observance of Lent mirrors the Biblical pattern of spending 40 days in preparation leading up to a major important event (see Genesis 7:4, Exodus 24:18, Numbers 13:25, Deuteronomy 9:11, 1 Kings 19:8, Jonah 3:4, Luke 4:2, and Acts 1:3, just to name a few). It is more specifically intended to represent and remind us of Christ’s 40-day trial in the desert. It is this time that those observing Lent specifically set aside for prayer, reflection, and preparation of hearts and minds to commemorate and, ultimately, celebrate the sobering but glorious Easter!
There are three main themes to Lent: fasting, prayer, and giving.
Lenten fasting was once quite strict and extensive, covering everything from meat and animal products to more amorous activities. Today, it is more commonly observed by giving up something one considers to be a vice or luxury and picking up something that is considered character-building. In this way, one uses this time to clean out and clean up their life in small (or not so small) ways. Sort of a spring cleaning for the soul! Last year I gave up all the foods for my first elimination diet and started going for a walk every day. This year, I will be giving up television (a large waster of my evenings and distrupter of my circadian rhythm) and picking up prayer journaling (something I’ve wanted to start doing for a while).
I find that practicing a Lenten fast really reminds me to focus on Christ in my day-to-day life. Every time I catch myself missing whatever I gave up, or resistant to whatever I picked up, I am reminded to look to Him for my motivation, purpose, and support, and to help align my will with His through prayer. Which leads me to the next theme of Lent.
Lent is also very much a time of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, a time of being still and knowing that He is God. Some of my most humbling and amazing encounters with my Lord have come during Lent. In more liturgically-minded churches, the sacrament of confession is often encouraged and practiced as another avenue of preparing and cleansing the heart. In the Anglican Church, we have rich congregational prayers specifically for Lent, in addition to our own personal and family prayer life and the option of confession. The focus on contemplation and prayerful evaluation during this season reminds me of my human-ness and how much I need my Saviour and Friend. To reflect on how, with Him, I am made perfect and whole. After all, He is the great Healer.
The final theme of Lent is the outward expression of the inner reflections. Giving is an act of worship, encompassing both fasting (sacrifice) and prayer. The fasting and contemplation of Lent reminds me that everything I have, from the clothes on my backs to my health to my eternal life, comes from my heavenly Father. He is my source of provision and sustenance, meeting all my needs. Of course it is good to give at all times, not just during Lent, but with the enormity of His Gift to me at the forefront of my mind during this time, a natural result is a giving heart. Some people who are giving up an expensive practice or habit (think smoking or Starbucks) often make a point of giving away what they are saving from their fast, but Lenten giving need not be restricted to money. It could be time, talents or skills, service, etc. This year, Scott and I will be making delicious, nutricious casseroles for our church’s food bank!
Have you ever given up anything for Lent? Have your own Lenten practices or traditions? Thoughts? I’d love to hear about them!