My friend Hope contacted me on facebo*k and asked about Lent. She and her family have engaged in the discipline this year, and she wanted to know more. I thought I'd post my responses here in case anyone else is curious.
Your mom told me to ask you about Lent. We gave up sweets, but I'm not sure why (other than it is a sacrifice - I told my kids to pray every time they thought about eating sweets). Could I have a history lesson, please?
The season of Lent is an ancient practice. It is one of the oldest practices in the church year. The purpose has always been for self-examination and renewal, even though it has changed in length, form and season over the centuries. Some records indicate that this discipline began as early as 150 A.D., which is barely past the time some of our Biblical texts were written. It became some sort of a common practice by 325.
Lent is currently 40 days long (excluding Sundays) because it is a reminder of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. 40 is a significant biblical number - 40 nights on the ark, 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days of Jesus' temptation, 40 days between resurrection and ascension, 40 days between ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. All of these times were times of waiting for God's revelation to us. These are times where it might appear God is silent. They are somewhat "dark" days. This is why Lent is often considered a time of sadness, so to speak.
(The following paragraph taken from church year.net)
The purpose of Lent is to be a season of fasting, self-denial, Christian growth, penitence, conversion, and simplicity. Lent, which comes from the Teutonic (Germanic) word for springtime, can be viewed as a spiritual spring cleaning: a time for taking spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hinder our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. Thus it is fitting that the season of Lent begin with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one's head or forehead. However, we must remember that our Lenten disciplines are supposed to ultimately transform our entire person: body, soul, and spirit. Our Lenten disciplines are supposed to help us become more like Christ. Eastern Christians call this process theosis, which St. Athanasius aptly describes as "becoming by grace what God is by nature."
So why would Hope and her family give up sweets, for example? We give up that which hinders us. We choose something to symbolize fasting (or we actually fast) - allowing ourselves to be empty so God can fill us (which is why Hope would suggest her kids pray). We might give up sweets as a reminder that they are a luxury. We might add a discipline - like Bible reading every night - as a reminder that this is our time for renewal.
Whatever we do, I believe (please hear the "I" in that statement) that Lent does no good for us if it isn't also an outward act. Let's take my own discipline on this one - I gave up hitting the snooze button. I'll be honest, it's been hard. But I did it for two reasons - 1) I am rushed and crazy every morning trying to get to work on time, and 2) when I'm rushed and crazy, I'm not prepared to start my workday, so I don't work as well. If I only saw in the Lenten discipline the good it does for my morning, it hasn't accomplished much. If I recognize and try to live with the fact that I am a better minister when I practice this, it fills me. It makes me more attentive to my job, which in turn affects the members of this congregation.
So, back to Hope. What does giving up sweets do for anyone else? Perhaps nothing. But what if Hope were to look at a shelf of candy, figure out what the family would have spent, and instead buy those $5 or $10 worth of items for a local food pantry? What if instead of having dessert, the family played a game around the table? What if they distracted themselves from the desire for the sugary goodness by volunteering at a soup kitchen (Centenary would be a great place, Hope - ask my mom!)?
When Lent becomes more than an exercise, when it becomes transformative, it allows us to recognize God at work both in us and around us. Whether you've chosen to participate in actual self-denial this year or not, my prayer this day is that you will see the Immanuel God, the God who moved into our neighborhoods (John 1:14, the Message), at work around you. May we keep our eyes open as we anticipate Easter this year.
Grace and Peace,