I did not know what Lent was until I was in my teens. The tradition of many protestant churches (often called low churches because of their lack of ‘high church’ practices and rituals) was to intentionally not observe the ‘ritualistic’ practices (like Lent) which could be confused as being part of a works-based salvation. The Catholics and Anglicans do that works-based stuff, we were told, while we just celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. The Catholics had Jesus on the cross– we protestants had the empty cross because Jesus is no longer crucified– he is risen!! (You can see this difference even in what the different churches call the ancient church in Jerusalem where Jesus’ tomb was. The Catholic (western) church calls it the church of the “holy seplechure” (grave) while the eastern church calls it the church of the resurrection. One focuses on the sacrifice, the other on the power of Christs resurrection.
The truth is, both are good. To remember Christ’s suffering and painful death as we go towards easter is good. To remember the final victory and the resurrection power of Christ to redeem is also good. Both are part of the same story. And observing ancient practices of the Church like Lent is not necessarily a works-based view of religion (that we get God to like us by doing certain things). Rather, Lent is a time to refocus through disciplining ourselves through particular spiritual practices.
So what is Lent? Its purpose is to remind ourselves of Christs suffering, and our own humanity. Also, it is a way to honor God and remember Christ’s sacrifice for us. Some people choose to forgo a vice, or something they really enjoy, to help them see how weak they really are. That could be giving up TV, movies, beer, facebook, coffee, soda, fast food, meat, shopping, eating out, or even driving a car. Often people give the money they would have spent on that activity to the poor or church. Some people add something instead of taking something away– like an hour of prayer per day, or extra exercise, or giving more money, or reading a number of pages each day of the Bible or something else productive.
Normally Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday, which is this coming Wednesday, until Easter. Also, as some practice it, Sundays are mini-celebrations where you don’t have to follow your lenten commitment– its a mini reminder of the celebration to come at Easter.
Does Lent make you more holy? Maybe. It will at least help you develop some discipline and possibly help you focus more on the gracious gift of Jesus Christ as Easter approaches.
Last year I gave up fast food, and that made me realize how much I had become sort of habituated to get a quick bite at Burger King or TB. Now I hardly eat at fast food places at all, mostly due to good habits started during Lent last year. Its a good discipline. We are physical beings, not merely spiritual, and Lent is a time when we can bring our spirit and body together in unity as we challenge ourselves to submit to a lenten commitment. It can bring about more humility, discipline, and a realization of our humanity, as we also focus our minds on the gift of Christ.
If you’ve never done anything for lent before, you might consider trying it this year, as an act of trying to draw closer to God, and also as an act of solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Christians who are also observing lent. When done with the right heart and intent, it is a great way of worshipping with both your body and spirit together.
IF you want to commit to Lent along with some others of us, you can join our facebook ‘event’ for Lent at: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=307938633987&ref=ts
Here is more on Lent: http://www.churchyear.net/lent.html
On a side note, one of my favorite books is Merold Westphal’s book “Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism” which is written as a Lenton devotional introducing you to the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud– the three great modern critics of Christian religion. Westphal, who is a Christian, reflects on their critique of the ways we make God in our own image (idolatry) and uses these insights to bring about penetrating self-analysis and critique. In short, he helps us learn from these Atheists how we might be less hypocritical and more aware of our selves. Its good stuff if you’re up for the challenge! Here it is: http://www.amazon.com/Suspicion-Faith-Religious-Modern-Atheism/dp/0823218767
If anyone happens to want to read through this book and talk about it off and on during lent, I’d totally be game. Andy