Lent and Easter are my two favorite seasons of the church year and of the holiday seasons in general. I think I like them so much because they are less secularized than Christmas. Additionally, when celebrated appropriately Lent can be an overwhelmingly formative experience. Lent is the season of forty days, not counting Sundays, prior to Easter. It is a season of preparation that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. The word Lent comes from the Anglo word lencten meaning spring. Lent has its roots as a season of fasting and preparation for baptism for new converts to the faith. Following in these historical beginnings it later became a time of penance for all Christians to prepare for the great feast of Easter.
Penance is defined as a voluntary act of self-punishment in association with the repentance of sin. In the Catholic tradition, it is considered a sacrament whereby the penitent parishioner confesses his or her sin to the priest and receives absolution for the sin. As protestants, we believe that we can be forgiven directly from God so we do not practice penance as a sacrament involving our pastors or priests. Rather we should practice penance by confessing to God our sins and then engage in the act of fasting, self-examination, prayer, and self-denial to make a right beginning of repentance (UMC Book of Worship pg. 322-323). The invitation to the observance of Lenten discipline found in the United Methodist Book of Worship states that Lent and the act of fasting and spiritual disciplines are used to help believers who have committed serious sin find reconciliation and restored participation in the life of the church. Several years back Cardinal Timothy Dolan described Lent as spring training for Christians. I believe this is a proper analogy as Lent has a way of helping us improve our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ, but only when practiced faithfully and with pure intentions.
Many people who observe Lent get in the habit of giving something up, fasting from cokes (soft drinks, soda pop, or pop for those of you not in the South), chocolate, candy, alcohol, TV, certain foods, etc. While it isn’t necessarily bad to fast from these things, the fact that many fast from the same thing year after year without much thought as to why doesn’t allow for spiritual formation. We are called to practice fasting and self-denial during Lent, but the reason we practice isn’t to see if we can go all Lent without a candy bar or a coke or to see if we can lose a little weight. No, the reason to fast is so that we are spiritually transformed by our fast. That is what we give up should in some way or another relate to our sin or help us to be drawn closer to God creating within us the fertile ground to produce the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:16-26) in our lives. Therefore, it is not enough to simply fast we must fast and reflect upon our relationship with God.
Lent begins next week with Ash Wednesday as we remember our mortality and repent of our sin by smearing ash on our foreheads, thus beginning that 40-day fast and call to the spiritual/lenten disciplines. This year instead of just giving up the same old thing, because it’s what we’ve always done. Let’s truly consider the state of our sin and our souls and give up something that along with the Holy Spirit and prayer will truly provide spiritual formation. Before the pastor smears ash on your forehead in shape of a cross and says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return. So, repent and believe the gospel” reflect long and hard on what is holding you back from a deeper relationship with God? What can I give up that will draw me closer to Christ? Then, Give it up.