So, here we are, well into the Season of Lent, having worshiped on Ash Wednesday and the first two Sundays of Lent! Lent is precisely 40 days (not counting Sundays as feast days) and began on Ash Wednesday (this year on February 17) and concludes the night before Easter.
While Lent is familiar to many people, there are nuances to the season easily missed. Why, for example, does Lent last 40 days, not including Sundays? The reason: They represent the 40 days of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. His 40 days allude to Moses and Elijah fasting for 40 days and to the 40 days and 40 nights Noah and his family and the animals spent on the ark during the Flood. Finally, the number 40 is significant for the 40 years Moses and Israel spent in the wilderness following their escape from Egypt and worship of the golden calf.
Why has Lent traditionally included fasting or some kind of sacrifice? Many people will give up some favorite food, hobby, or practice to observe the Lenten season and to honor Jesus’ loving sacrifice on the cross. After all, it begins with Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance for sins and acknowledgement of our finitude: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Fasting and personal sacrifice underscore the penitent theme of the Lenten season.
Lent invites us to face fearlessly the darkness, within us personally and with us corporately, like the crowd that shouted, “Crucify him!” and collaborated with the political and religious authorities in condemning Jesus to death on Good Friday. Without regular Lenten confession, it is easy for Christians to fall prey to the cardinal sin of pride. It was this very sin Jesus averted when he refused the devil’s invitation to make all the nations bow to him. Jesus’ humility in avoiding temptation stands in diametrical opposition to tyrants who seek to make people bow to them. Without imitating Jesus’ humility through acknowledging our own shortcomings it’s easy to delude ourselves into self-righteous thinking and behavior.
Is Lent new or has it been around a long time? It has been around a very long-time though many evangelical & Pentecostal churches never have observed Lent. Lenten discipline remains a fairly new practice for many mainstream denominations like ours, who only began to observe all the seasons of the church year after Vatican II in the 1960’s. But Lent has been around at least since the 4th century C.E. with the Council of Nicea in the year 325.
Is our observance of Lent really necessary? It depends on how we define “necessary.” But the temptation is to omit observing Lent and its many spiritual implications for our relationships to God and to others. To this day, many Christians ignore Lend and forget about Good Friday, the climax of the Lenten season, altogether. Some churches in their desire to attract new people have even done away with the cross in their sanctuary for fear new people will be offended by it. Thankfully this isn’t true at Shawnee Community.
Of course, nearly everyone in Christianity likes celebrating Christmas and Easter! What’s not to like in celebrating the birth of a baby (though many Churches of Christ—not to be confused with United Church of Christ churches—don’t) and celebrating resurrection? But Good Friday and its inference of all humanity’s complicity in Jesus’ death is another story. In a death-denying society like ours, many people are afraid that even talking about death is tempting fate. But orthodox, traditional Christianity of which we are descendants is much bolder in its willingness to face the darkness of life rather than deny it or run away from this darkness we all know exists in us and in our world.
And this willingness to face our own inner darkness and the world’s darkness does not prevent Lent from including Sundays as feast days, when the little sacrifices we make through Lent can be suspended briefly. Sundays, even in Lent, are called “feast days” as a way of affirming the power Easter has for us no matter the time of year. Sundays always stand as reminders that God’s love and life are more powerful than death and darkness; hence Sunday’s feast over Lent’s fasts.
Does Jesus’ victory over temptation have positive implications for us? The devil set before Jesus some of the great temptations, often referred to as the 7 deadly sins, the church has identified over the centuries: Egotism or pride “If you are the Son of God, then…”; Gluttony and Materialism: Bread to overcome Jesus’ hunger” and so on.
That Jesus called upon God’s help to overcome these temptations provides us with the hope that by calling upon God’s help, we are empowered to begin overcoming the various temptations that afflict our lives.
At the same time, as Lent leads to the victory of Easter, so Lent can make each day a kind of Easter, whenever we achieve a special goal or overcome some temptation in our life. Many people have found their observance of this season of penitence more helpful and positive by starting a spiritual discipline: daily meditation, regular every Sunday worship, an exercise routine…the possibilities are endless so long as we identify their spiritual intent.
But just as Lent would become meaningless without Easter at Lent’s conclusion, so Easter can feel empty if Lent is not observed. In the latter case, Easter can become like a special vacation at Disney World, fun and glorious, but emotionally and spiritually superficial. Lent, which also quite literally separates the Lengthening of days with the coming of Springtime has a way of deepening our faith and our commitment to loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
It’s why we started this season in worship on Sunday, February 21st, with the words, “Have a Meaningful Lent” because Lent is that season in the Christian year when we are most apt to ask, “What does it all mean?”
A continued meaningful Lent to you and yours!