If you were not yet aware, then let me be the first to tell you: today is Ash Wednesday and thus the beginning of Lent.
There is a Christianity Today article that was posted yesterday about the top 100 things people were giving up for Lent. This sociological sample was only taken from what people tweeted. In my opinion, the top 100 list taken from Twitter was rather unsurprising. What’s worse was the fact that these answers were evidence of the cheapened version of Lent that we have been sold.
I grew up being aware of Lent, but that was about it. I suppose I was also very aware of the fact that instead of receiving presents during Lent, I actually was expected to give something up. Even though I had absolutely no idea as to the significance of Lent, I always responded to the prodding from those who would ask what I was giving up-and to my parent’s delight, soda was often what I chose (which is number eight on the Twitter list by the way). I never really asked about why Lent took place, but I was certain that it had something to do with Christianity and giving up Coca-Cola. It was a good place to start as a young lad, but my convictions have drastically changed since that point in my life.
It has only been in the past couple of years that the observance of Lent has become extremely important to me. In the context of the liturgical year (which is not just for Catholics by the way-check my friend and colleague Eric Asp for more on this) Lent comes after Epiphany, which remembers Jesus’ divinity, and lasts for forty (but technically forty-six) days. Lent was deemed to be a forty day occasion under the Council of Nicea, which met in 325AD. The number forty may sound arbitrary, but it is actually rich with meaning. When we see passages like Exodus 34:28 where Moses waited for forty days and forty nights in preparation to receive the ten commandments from the Lord we begin to see glimmers of what Lent could actually be about. However, our focus becomes increasingly clear when we set out sights on Jesus. In the synoptic gospels we witness Jesus being led into the wilderness by the spirit for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). For Jesus, this time in the wilderness was also about preparation and identification.
So, what are we preparing for? What is the point of giving up Coca-Cola? The forty days of Lent lead us to holy week in which we remember and are led to worship the God who was slaughtered in our place. We remember the Jesus who was tortured, died, and placed in a tomb.
We remember something else too…
We remember the fact that he was raised to life in order that we too might walk in newness of life. In his rising he gave us a foretaste of the new creation that is seeping into this world now, but will one day burst forth and renew the face of the earth. This is what Lent prepares us to remember and celebrate.
How does giving something up fit into this equation? Giving up something during Lent is not about saving some money on Starbucks or about loosing some weight so that you can finally fit back into those pants that you really like. No. Fasting during the Lenten season is about forsaking ourselves. Fasting is not about what God gives me in return or about the benefits that I receive (read Isaiah 58:3-Israel struggled with the same thing), but it is instead about learning to forsake ourselves in hopes of turning our gaze more fully to Jesus and to our neighbor. This is and has always been the purpose of fasting during the Lenten season. One pastor says that Lent is about “learning to take sides with Jesus against ourselves”. I have always appreciated the imagery in that statement.
I am not sure about you, but I love the liturgical year. There was a time when I rebelled against it (maybe three or four years ago) but I have come to love its history and its purpose. The purpose of Lent and the liturgical year in general is to maintain a rhythm of remembrance. We absolutely need this rhythm and I think we would do well to pay attention to the tracks that were laid for us long ago. Let’s pray that Lent is a place where revival, reform, and revision take place in hearts of God’s people this year.
If you want to go through a Lenten devotional, here are some resources that may be helpful:
Henri Nouwen Lenten Devotional : The late Henri Nouwen taught in America but was born in the Netherlands and was best know for being a spiritually formative writer. Nouwen has been extremely impactful in my own life and has had tremendous impact in forming me spiritually and emotionally. Check out this devotional by subscribing via email.
Gospel Coalition Lenten Devotional: Journey to the Cross is a solid devotional that you can read digitally or in print if you’d like. The Gospel Coalition is a blog I follow and a movement of pastors and church leaders of the Reformed tradition that desire to be faithful to gospel of Christ. This devotional provides some wonderful daily rhythms that will help prepare your heart during the season of Lent.
NT Wright’s Lent for Everyone Devotional: Here is devotional by NT Wright that I have heard is good as well. Wright is a retired Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar. He has devotionals for years A, B, and C for the three year cycle in the liturgical year. 2014 is year A in the liturgical calendar.
I hope some of these resources prove helpful to you! I also hope that this Lenten season you learn what it means to forsake yourself while seeking to love Jesus and your neighbor.