When I was growing up, there was no such thing as Lent—at least not in my church. We did know about Palm Sunday. That was the day the Sunday school kids made palm branches out of paper, though we didn’t do the whole processional with palms that is so common today. And of course we went to church on Good Friday and Easter. But I didn’t hear of Lent, Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and the Easter Vigil until my college years.
At first I thought those were simply foreign-sounding Roman Catholic observances. Then I learned that churches across the denominational spectrum celebrate many, if not all, of these holy days. But there’s one practice that I still find puzzling: the practice of “giving something up” for Lent.
Now don’t get me wrong; I am all for spiritual practices and discipline. I’m just not sure that the act of giving up chocolate or TV for Lent can draw us closer to God in and of itself. Laurence Hull Stookey puts it best when he writes: “Lenten disciplines are not temporary deletions or additions, but spiritual exercises that permanently alter us” (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Abingdon Press, 1996).
The concept of a period of penitence and preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection through spiritual exercises such as fasting originated as a way of preparing new converts for their baptism, which would occur at the Easter Vigil. As Christianity gained a foothold in the culture and infant baptism became the norm, that time of preparation was extended to include faithful Christians too.
The fact that Lent lasts for forty days is a reflection of the significance of the number forty in Scripture as a period of preparation, including Christ’s forty days in the wilderness in preparation for his own ministry. Thus Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season, falls forty days before Easter (not including Sundays, which are days of celebration and not penance).
The Roman Catholic Church has retained its emphasis on Lenten practices and calls all faithful Catholics to observe the time of Lent through various acts of fasting, if they are able. In the Protestant community people speak of “giving something up” for Lent as a reminder of what Christ gave up for us in his incarnation, his life on earth, and his death. But while we may have the right intentions, I wonder if our practices truly alter how we view the world around us or our relationship with Christ.
This Lenten season I encourage you to challenge yourself and your congregation to think more deeply about your Lenten observance. Instead of asking what you can give up for Lent, consider what stands in the way of a closer walk with God.
Do you need to turn the TV off in order to spend more time in prayer and Scripture reading? Then by all means limit your TV viewing and replace it with devotional time; don’t simply replace it with more computer time. Is food an emotional crutch that you rely on more than Christ? Then work on changing that reality. In other words, whatever we choose ought to bring us closer to Christ himself.
But there is more. Christ gave himself up for others, and in order for us to truly draw near to him we must be willing to do the same. During Lent, think about what practices will help bring about Christ’s kingdom here on earth. Are there people with whom you need to be reconciled? Is there a way to promote justice in your community? Are there opportunities to serve the poor, the widow, and the orphan?
Asking these kinds of questions will lead us to practices that result in the deep spiritual change intended by Lenten observances. Spiritual change may be supported through congregational worship, but it needs the traction of daily living to truly take root.
So this year don’t challenge your congregation to simply “give something up” for Lent. Instead, challenge them to give more of themselves to Christ by finding one or two ways in which their life can more fully emulate his. Hopefully these will become habits that don’t end with Easter but continue to sustain them throughout the year.