The seasons of the church calendar and the liturgy that accompanies them are for me the rhythms that draw the sacred down into my everyday life. As we are getting ready to start the season of Lent—the forty days before Easter—I have been overwhelmed by the way God has been preparing my heart for it through everything from Ryan’s messages on Sundays to random conversations with strangers.
Lent includes a few distinct periods: Ash Wednesday (February 22 this year) is the first day of Lent; some Christians participate in a service where they are marked on the forehead with ashes as a sign of repentance. The five weeks of Lent are a time for us to consider our need for a Savior, and many Christians participate in some form of fasting and giving. Holy Week is our annual remembrance of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, including Palm Sunday (celebrating Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem), Maundy Thursday (the Last Supper, and Jesus’ new commandment to love one another), Good Friday (the crucifixion and death of Jesus), and Holy Saturday (a day of quiet when Jesus lay in the tomb). Lent ends with Easter, our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.
While Lent is not a practice specifically mentioned in the Bible (you won’t find it in your Bible’s dictionary or concordance), it has its roots in the earliest days of Christian practice. When the early church leaders realized that Christians had become too comfortable and complacent, someone suggested it was time to call them back to their senses, and the Bible offered some clues about how to do that. Lent recalls the 40 days Noah spent on the ark, the 40 days Moses spent listening to God give the law, the 40 years Israel spent wandering in the desert learning to trust God, the 40 days Elijah spent in the wilderness before hearing God’s still, small voice, the 40 days Jonah did penance for Nineveh, and the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert and being tempted by Satan. All these times spent in the desert and the wilderness were awful, but if we learn anything from how often this practice is repeated it is that this time in the wilderness is necessary for our faith.
Lent is the season for confessing our sin and brokenness, and Lent teaches us that true wholeness comes through sacrifice. Lent is in many ways about death—death to ourselves and our desires in preparation to remember the tremendous sacrifice of Jesus’ own death for us. But that’s not the whole story. Lent reminds us that we must die in order to fully live; it is not simply death, but death in order to be reborn. Nature echoes this paradox: seeds must die to grow, stars die to birth galaxies. Jesus himself said we must die to live. If we live in a constant state of self-indulgence we will never live a whole life. When we deny ourselves, die to our wants and needs, wholeness seeps into us and we can live the good, full life that Jesus promised to us.
I was specifically reminded about Lent by Ryan’s sermon last Sunday, “What if we all had the TIME?” (if you missed it, listen to the podcast here, and if you were there you already know it’s worth a re-listen). I’ve recently realized how cluttered I have let my life become, and Ryan reminded me that relationships, especially my relationship with God, cannot exist without margin. If I have filled up all the spaces of my life with my own junk, then I have left no space for God to meet with me or to move in me. “If you are feeling dry, lost, unable to hear or see God,” Ryan said, “could it be that you are not seeing God move in your life because you have filled up all the margin? When you create margin for God, God will create margin for you.” This is the point of Lent.
Lent is about giving something up in order to create space for God—space for you to acknowledge God’s presence, space for God to meet with you and you with God, space to grow and to be changed. This is time for us to get away—to spend time in the wilderness, so to speak—so that when Resurrection Day comes, our hearts are ready for it, better able to understand the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice and more ready to be changed by it because we have sacrificed something ourselves.
Lent is a time to realign our lives and to reclaim the margin. This is a season to create new habits, learn new rhythms—and to unlearn all the harmful habits and rhythms we’ve picked up lately. All of us are addicted to something. Lent asks us to identify God as the most important thing in our lives by labeling our addictions and crutches and letting God replace them. In setting aside our addictions we set our priorities straight and learn what it means to put God at the center of everything. We learn what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.
The most traditional observation of Lent is fasting. My Catholic friends fast from meat on Fridays in addition to giving up some other thing, but a Lenten sacrifice could be anything. One of my “addictions” is chocolate, so one year I gave up desserts for Lent. Others I know have fasted from soda or from eating out or even from shopping. I’ve fasted from media, too, turning the time I would have been spending watching TV or on the internet into space for prayer and reflection. Ryan challenged us to a media fast last week—you could continue that media fast throughout the season of Lent. Modify it if you need to, like limiting your consumption of media to only an hour a day, for example. Consider giving up that daily trip to Starbucks and donating the money you save to a cause. “Significant Sacrifice” is a movement prepared by Lifewater International, encouraging you to fast from a luxury item (your cup of coffee, cable, using your car when you could walk) during Lent, and to donate the money you save toward fresh water in third world countries (watch this video for more information and ideas).
Lent is also a time to consider adding a spiritual discipline to your life. I think silence is one of the most frightening things for us, but it is necessary for the care of the soul. One year for Lent I practiced the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude, spending Saturday afternoons and evenings in silence and breaking my silence on Sunday morning at church so the first words out of my mouth were literally songs of worship. Last year I was commuting more often and longer distances than I ever had before and I loved listening to music and NPR while driving; for Lent I gave up listening to the radio in my car and used that quiet time to listen to God instead. It shouldn’t be surprising that I was able to hear God more when I turned down all the other noise in my life.
Both in ancient times and today, Lent is an opportunity to consider our lives, remember our need for a Savior, and release things that have become an obstacle to trusting God. Fasting or praying during Lent does not impress God or earn God’s approval; instead, it helps us remember that we are saved by Christ alone and we are shaped as we share in His sufferings. If you have never participated in anything like this before, I’d like to challenge you to try it. You don’t have to give up something huge, but it should be something important (giving up bacon isn’t much of a sacrifice if you’re already a vegetarian). Ultimately, the point is to create space—margin—for God to move and speak in your life. And I guarantee that if you habitually create that space, God will show up—or maybe you will realize that God has been there all along but you were just too busy or too distracted to notice.
*Here are some resources that have been really helpful for me about fasting and spiritual disciplines. This year the scheduled scripture readings for Lent include a lot of passages from the gospel of Mark—consider reading through Mark and re-living the life, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus during Lent.
Author: Alicia McClinitic