In the weeks leading up to Easter, the Christian church has traditionally kept a season of preparation, called Lent. During these weeks, we consider the human condition and the need we have for Jesus, whose coming, death, and resurrection is our hope.
Early on, the Lenten season was a time of fasting that lasted forty days in the calendar of the church, on analogy with various biblical periods of “preparation”: Moses’ forty years in the wilderness before being called to lead God’s people, the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness before entering the promised land, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation by the devil in the desert before commencing his public ministry. If you don’t count Sundays (which are never considered to be “fast” days), that forty day period takes you back to the seventh Wednesday before Easter, the day we now know as Ash Wednesday.
The “ash” of Ash Wednesday—many churches still keep this first day of Lent with a service that includes the act of marking worshipers’ foreheads with ashes—is meant to call to mind the biblical axiom found in Genesis 3: “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Most funeral services still conclude with a line reminding us that our lives go from “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” In other words, we all die.
We don’t bring this to mind for the sake of being merely morbid. We bring it to mind because it was for a dying world that Christ came. The Christian message is primarily a declaration of great joy, the proclamation that in Christ God has overcome sin and death. But by looking at the real and troubled world head-on, by naming its problems for what they are—the persistent tyranny of sin and death—two crucial things happen: first, we are filled with genuine praise for our Lord, refusing to take the gift of new life in him for granted; and second, we learn how to gather up the world’s woes into our life of prayer and worship. In other words, we learn properly how to sympathize with and love the world that is so dear to the heart of God.
If we choose to keep these six-and-a-half weeks of preparation, we find ourselves called to a deeper attention to the core realities of our lives than we ordinarily give them. Easter is the central moment and celebration of Christian faith and life; to spend some time reflecting and preparing for it is only fitting to the magnitude of the holy day itself.
Once we understand what Lent is all about, it becomes easier to see how such resolutions as “giving up chocolate for Lent” don’t really match the meaning and gravity of the season. The fasting some of us may undertake for Lent (whether from certain foods or habits or routines) is quite secondary both to the preparation of our hearts and wills to receive the message anew and to the act of identifying with, praying for, and caring for a world in great need.
Some Lenten Suggestions
In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the readings for Ash Wednesday include a passage from the prophet Joel in which the call to fasting is modified: “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” Lent is not for show. We will make the best use of Lent if we see this season as an invitation to enter again into the heart of our faith. For most of us that will mean something in the realm of our devotional practice. If you’ve never gotten into the habit of reading the Bible daily, that’s the place to start. Spend Lent reading a gospel, or perhaps meditating on one of the epistles of Paul, those works that simply abound in reflections on the meaning of Jesus—his coming, his death, and his resurrection—for the Christian life. If you have consistent Bible reading habits already, Lent is an ideal time to expand your horizon to include some additional spiritual reading. You might read a classic, like Augustine’s Confessions, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, or any of a number of other equally worthy titles. Or you might pick up a biography of a Christian from the past, whether a mystic like St Francis of Assisi, a crusader for truth like Martin Luther, or someone committed to working for justice whatever the cost, like Martin Luther King, Jr. Spiritual reading can include fiction too, as we let an author widen our vision for the pain of the world in which God’s grace acts (distinguished authors like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were Christians who saw their fiction as something of a calling). Or you might borrow a hymnal from church and spend a few minutes each day reading and reflecting on a hymn from the sections that focus on Lent or the Person of Christ or the Crucifixion. The point is simple: read and think in such a way during the season of Lent that it is a journey that will reach its fulfillment in Holy Week and Easter, when we remember first the crucifixion and then, joyously, on Easter morning, the resurrection of Jesus.
For further reference: Maria Trapp (the fictionalized version of whom Julie Andrews played in The Sound of Music) wrote some helpful guidelines for a Lenten reading program that are now quoted online here: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=389 . Her specific suggestions are all, understandably, Catholic, but whether we read some of her authors or choose others, her advice is very valuable.