Monday, February 08, 2016

Lent: An Introduction

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. But what is the season of Lent? Why should we practice it? What does it mean? 

The church I grew up in wasn’t one that celebrated Lent. When I went to Bible college, Lent wasn’t really spoken of either outside of Church History class. It’s only as I’ve gone out on my own, reading, connecting with people from different communities of faith, and exploring different disciplines and church practices that Lent has really even been in my vocabulary. My first encounters with it, really, were people around me giving up stuff for lent. Usually, chocolate, candy. For some it was things like Facebook or TV. Admittedly, my reaction was “its probably better for everyone around me if I don’t give up chocolate or coffee.” As is the case with most church practices, I’m learning though, that its rooted in much more meaning and depth.

We don’t do this as formally as some churches do but, traditionally, the church calendar is split into seasons. Advent. Christmas. Lent. Easter. These seasons, when followed, make up an interesting rhythm of reflection, anticipation and celebration.

We talked about advent as a season of waiting, longing even, as we anticipate the birth of Christ. Then Christmas comes and we celebrate. The past few years, I have practiced advent more intentionally and have been amazed at the difference that it has made through the season. It has helped me find focus through all the busy and stress of the season. I’ve found that it has helped me to find joy in the Christmas season and actually be able to celebrate, in spite of some of the stuff of life, when Christmas does arrive.

Lent is much the same. Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God and refocus towards our Easter celebration. Through these acts and the perspective they bring, we create a sense of longing for the resurrection. 

It's the forty days before Easter, beginning with Ash Wednesday. This year it's from February 10 (Ash Wednesday) to March 27 (Easter), 2016.

Ash Wednesday is the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday and the first day of the Season of Lent. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world.

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/dirt/ash. 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.

At an Ash Wednesday service, the people 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 reminder that we can experience God's forgiveness and renewal as we return to Jesus.

This begins the 40 days of reflection, redirection and return to the ways of Jesus that make up Lent. Why 40? The number 40 is connected with many biblical events, but especially with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness. 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. Where he fasted and prayed for 40 days. During his time there he was tempted by Satan and found clarity and strength to resist temptation. Afterwards, he was ready to begin his ministry. Like Jesus, we may need to take some serious time to pray and listen for God.

As we approach the season of lent this year, 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 classes, relationships, family, and work. Our lives are filled with distractions that take us away from living a life with Christ. Its so easy to fill our time with stuff, to get focused on what we want and on doing things our own way. 

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 changing your lifestyle and letting God change your heart.

Lent has traditionally been marked by repentant prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (giving).

FASTING: Some people have been known to go without food for days. 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 coffee, tv, soft drinks, or meat as a way to purify their bodies and lives. You might skip one meal a day and use that time to pray instead. Or you can give up some activity like worry or reality tv 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 or do?

Giving: Some Christians take something on for Christ. You can collect food 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.

Some people find ways to combine the two. For example, if you choose to give up your morning cup of coffee, it frees up a certain amount of money which could then be given to serve the Kingdom.

PRAYER: We can 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 what He is saying to you and who He is in the world.
Whatever you might choose, the journey through Lent is a way to places ourselves before God humbled, realizing that there’s nothing we can do to earn salvation. It is a way to confess our total inadequacy before God, to strip ourselves bare of all illusions of righteousness, to come before God just as we are. It helps us see our need of Jesus and prepare our hearts for the celebration of Easter, when Jesus paid it all. 

These "works" themselves aren't life changing but putting ourselves in a posture where we can meet Jesus is. By practicing Lent, as Christians have done throughout history, we can each take a small step in orienting our lifestyles more towards God in this season. 

*This post has been informed, in idea and sometime in wording, by the resources found in here. 

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