Next Wednesday we will hold an Ash Wednesday service to mark the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a forty-day period of fasting and renewal meant to prepare us for celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. The practice was formalized in the early days of the church – around the fourth century – as a time for new converts to prepare for baptism on Easter Sunday.
In the 21st century, many of us will have varied reactions to words like “Lent” and “fasting,” and customs like “Ash Wednesday.” For some, Lent carries associations of gloom and austerity– stern traditions that add more rules and guilt to our already-overburdened consciences. Aren’t these the very legalistic practices that the reformers sought to free us from? Others with little context for Lent may see them as hollow, meaningless rituals that are antithetical to true Christian living. Of course, like any practice wielded by sinful men and women, Lent has been misused in all these ways. But if we can look past these associations and come to the essence of what Lent is for, we can find a beautiful and rich season that is meant to lead us in the way of Christ, to deepen our relationship with Him as we suffer and serve as He did, and to constantly remind us of the gospel truth that Christ is risen and death does not get the final word in any area of our lives.
Lent is really a season of hope and rebirth. It is springtime for our souls. As we will hear and sing on Ash Wednesday, we come from dust and to dust we will return (Genesis 3:19). The only way to experience resurrection is through death. To walk with Jesus is to be baptized into his death. As the grass starts to emerge from the ground and trees and flowers begin to bud, we have an opportunity to experience new life in our spiritual journey as we open ourselves through practices of self-denial.
I want to encourage you to engage with the season in some way as we move towards Easter together. Three common ways to participate in Lent are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. In fasting, we give up something that absorbs a lot of our energy and attention and to devote that time and energy to deepen our relationship with God. Prayer is one of the best ways we can do this, and a great way to structure prayer time during this season is to use a devotional (there are several in the back of the worship center) or pray the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer (which you can find here, among other places). Another way to redirect our resources is through almsgiving, or additional acts of charity to bless the poor and less fortunate. There are familiar ways to do this, like donating money or giving our time in serving others. But it can also look like showing extra kindness and gratitude to friends and family, avoiding complaining, or writing letters or notes to distant loved ones.
The aim of all these practices is to deepen our relationship with the Lord and to identify with the suffering of Jesus as he journeyed toward the cross, so that we can more fully and joyously share in his resurrection. To this end, remember that Sundays during Lent are feast days, meaning we can enjoy the things we are abstaining from as we celebrate in the midst of this time that Christ is risen, and that death and suffering are defeated. Because we celebrate the resurrection every Sunday, our worship services won’t be overly somber or morose. So we encourage everyone who wants to observe the season in this way to take up these practices during the week.