If you are like me and did not grow up in a Christian tradition that follows the liturgical seasons, Lent might seem like a ritualistic form of spiritual discipline. And Lent usually brings to mind simply abstaining from certain foods for 40 days. But I would like to argue that Lent is a necessary spiritual discipline for all the Church to participate.
Let’s start by unpacking what Lent is. Lent is the season of preparation for Easter. Easter celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most important event in the history of the Church. Although Easter is a time of celebration of the blessing of forgiveness, healing, and adoption, those themes lack importance unless we understand — and experience — their necessity. Therefore, the season of Lent is the practice of bringing to our hearts, minds, and bodies, the experience of sin and suffering of our broken world.
Now one might argue, “Must I bring to heart, mind, and body the experience of sin and suffering? Doesn’t our world show us enough of those?” I would argue that it does not. We do experience sin and suffering, but it is often in a curated fashion. We know that we sin, but we find excuses (“I gossiped because she is so cruel”), or we trivialize it (“its just a small lie”), or we focus on forgiveness rather than repentance. Worse yet, we might even find ourselves sanctifying our sin (“God wants me to be wealthy/popular/successful/etc.”). The most disconcerting aspect of our post-Christian era is its ability to turn sin completely around and call it holy. This is how many Christian churches and denomination have turned sexual sin into activity to be celebrated.
Likewise, the world’s suffering is often experienced in a curated fashion. We are inundated with news about suffering as a result of violence , natural disasters, and political turmoil. But this often is trivialized into matters of policy or public welfare (i.e. “how do we stop gun violence?”); a talking point for talking heads. And we typically experience suffering through a type of media (television, radio, internet, etc.). Especially for us in the United States, the degree of suffering the average person experiences is particularly low. And we may be hurting from the blessing of well-being.
You see, without experiencing the brokenness of our world, our dependence on Christ weakens.
Living in arguably the most comfortable time and place in history, we grow accustomed to being taken care of, having our burdens removed, and having our desires fulfilled. And rather than recognizing this and realizing that it is only by the grace of God that we experience any amount of comfort and relief from suffering, we look inward and cling faster to our successes we foolishly believe are our own, our independence we believe we have obtained, and our pleasures we regard so highly.
A Christian may wonder when they are desperately asking for God to fix some aspect of their life, why it is so hard for the Christian heart to change. The answer lies partly in the self-absorption we have fostered in our hearts by our comfort-filled lives.
This is why the Church needs Lent.
For 40 days leading up to Easter, the observer of Lent enters an awareness of our finitude, our mortality, and our unrighteousness. This for the purpose of growing our dependence on Christ. The recipe for Lent is fairly simple and has been consistent throughout time. As the Book of Common Prayer states, the believer observes Lent,
“by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting, and self-denial;
and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word”
By reading Scripture, we can focus on God’s word that convicts us of our sin, reveals the inmost working of our heart, and reminds us of God’s promise of restoration. By taking the time to reflect on our unrighteous condition, we grow our dependence on God, and strengthen our commitment to the way of Christ. And perhaps most importantly, by self-denial — whether fasting from food or other pleasures, or committing your time to prayer — we acknowledge Christ’s words:
“It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”
This teaching reminds us that although we treat nutritional sustenance for ourselves and our families as vital, it pales in comparison to the need we have for God’s sustaining counsel and power. It is so very easy to maintain the belief that the work we do each day (laboring, learning, planning, etc.) is the most important. But if we are honest, I believe we will see that our human pursuits begin to occupy any room for God in our lives. The spiritual disciplines of self-denial undo these habits, and as Bobby Gross notes on fasting specifically, “(it) is much like sabbath-keeping: a restriction that creates space for God1.
Without such disciplines as those that are the cornerstone of Lent, I fail to see how the modern Christian has room for God’s word and spirit. We desperately need to be humbled by our brokenness and captivated by our need for God. The season of Lent helps accomplish that. We slosh through the muck of our sin for 40 days with our eyes firmly fixed on the cross of Christ as our most certain hope. And as if all of nature wished to agree with this impending grace, the days get warmer and the daylight grows more persistent as we approach the most holy day of the year.
How To Begin Observing Lent
Now for those that don’t attend a church that observes Lent, but would like to begin doing it personally, there are several resources to be offered. First, Bobby Gross’s book, Living The Christian Year: Time To Inhabit The Story of God, is a great resource to give you an introduction to the seasons of the Church and some weekly meditations during the seasons. You could also follow the daily liturgies like the “Liturgy of the Hours” which will certainly guide your heart and thoughts through the Lent Season.
For a communal observance, you can use the following resources that I have prepared and used with my family and friends for weekly gatherings on Sundays leading up to Easter. They are a combination of hymns, scripture readings, prayers, and meditations (something for everyone!). Find them in our Resources section, or just click here: Lent Gatherings
- Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (Kindle Locations 1440-1441). Kindle Edition.