Let's do a little bit of "Church 101" to help orient us to what's going on right now, and why it matters for us.
The Church follows a traditional calendar that is a bit different from the calendar you are used to. It begins before Christmas, in a season we call Advent. Advent prepares us for the coming of Jesus as a baby, in our lives, and in the future when he returns to judge the world. We then celebrate his coming, something we call the Incarnation, at Christmas. We have a beautiful season of Christmas that culminates on a day called the Epiphany.
Epiphany is a day marked by remembering the star that led the so-called wisemen or magi to Jesus, but it is really about celebrating the revelation of God in Jesus. We especially remember that God revealed the Truth of Jesus to the Gentiles, or non-Jewish people, which most Christians today are. After Epiphany there is a time when celebrate and dwell on the themes of light and revelation.
Then, 40 days before the feast of Easter, we begin a special time called Lent. Lent begins with a day called Ash Wednesday. This year Ash Wednesday is March 2 and the First Sunday in Lent is March 6. Let's talk about why we do Ash Wednesday, what it means, and what Lent is all about. Most importantly, let's talk about why it matters to us in the 21st century in our lives!
The Book of Common Prayer invites us on Ash Wednesday into a time of Holy Lent with these words:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.
As you can see, the history of this season called Lent goes back to the early Church preparing new candidates for Baptism. They would be baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter celebrated in the darkness of night before the first light of Easter Day. These candidates to become new followers of Jesus, or new Christians, spent 40 days preparing for their baptism. Over time, the whole Church joined them in preparing for Holy Week and Easter with a time of penitence, preparation, discipline, self-examination, prayer, fasting, study, and self-denial. This is where we get the idea of giving things up for Lent.
A lot of people practice Lent by giving something up for self-improvement, like not smoking during Lent, or not eating sweets, or giving up alcohol. None of those things are bad to do. But that's not what Lent is about.
The first Sunday in Lent every year looks at the same story from the Gospels. We hear a different version of Jesus' Temptation in the wilderness by Satan. I can imagine that sounds like a pretty crazy story, so let's break it down.
After Jesus' own baptism, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting (ah, see where that comes from!). After that forty days, the Gospels tell us that the Devil came to him and tempted him. We hear in Luke's Gospel this year that he is tempted first to turn rocks into bread so he can break his fast and eat, second that the Devil would give him rulership over the nations of the world, and third to throw himself off of a building so he could be caught by angels, and therefore not harmed. All three of these temptations have to do with health, power, safety, and security. Jesus counters all of them with radical dependence on God the Father.
The Scottish theologian George MacDonald believed that Jesus' entire ministry was shaped by his experience in the desert. In the desert, Jesus learned radical dependence on God for everything. We see this reflected in his teaching, as Jesus tells us not to worry about what we'll eat or drink, or where we'll get our clothing. We see this all the way to Jesus' own trial, as he stood silent, knowing that because he belonged to God the Father, the powers of the world, even the mighty Roman Empire, could do nothing to him. Not even death is worth fearing when you are completely dependent on God for everything.
This is what the season of Lent is all about. It is a reminder, first, that we are mortal. We are dust, and to dust we will return. All of us will go to the grave. But as our burial rites say, even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Lent reminds us that as mortals, we depend on God for everything, even our very life. We practice fasting, self-denial, discipline, and such during Lent to help us remember our dependence on God.
So if you decide to give something up, give something up that will help you remember that you don't depend on that thing, you depend on God. Give things up that help remind you how limited and mortal you really are, that you will die, and that this day is a gift.
You can also take on spiritual practices, such as a morning prayer, or a nightly reflection. Again, take on a practice that will help you remember your dependence on God, your baptismal vows, and that will help prepare you for Holy Week and the glory of Easter.
One last thing, every single Sunday, even in Lent, is a feast day, not a fast day. So practice your special devotion or fasting in Lent but remember to feast on Sunday to remember his Resurrection even during Lent.
Whatever you do this Lent, I hope you'll be blessed for your daily journey. Did this little crash course into Lent help you understand this time better? Did it make it clearer why this matters for us today? Comment below, we would love to hear from you!