Today begins the forty-day journey of Lent. It is marked in days but lived in grace.
Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the 40-day Lenten season leading up to Easter. If you are like me, I did not grow up observing the liturgical Church calendar. However, my spiritual journey has helped me come to recognize my limited understanding and the richness of a life with God beyond my own experience. The Church calendar teaches me and expands my understanding and offers practices that invite me to intentionally mark my days in mindful ways that would go unnoticed otherwise or be consumed by busyness. Perhaps, like you, it is easy for a year to go by without any significant spiritual markers that you can identify. Everything just seems to run together. Life becomes less profound, more forgetful, and emptied of the sacred.
Throughout the Scriptures, God used rhythms of “forty” to work in the lives of His people. To test. To renew. To grow. To direct. “Forty” designated times when God engaged with humanity in exceptional, memorable, and life-transforming ways. Lent is modeled around this same rhythm.
Throughout the Old Testament, ashes were used as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin, but also as a sign of humility and mortality. Thus, the image and tradition of Ash Wednesday, ashes marked in the sign of the cross on our foreheads, was intended as an outward expression of a heart of humility – a penitent posture before God that will be necessary for our journey over these next forty days. The ashes also remind us of our own limited humanity, which is always good to keep in mind.
Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word “Lenten” which simply means “spring.” Springtime is when all of creation pushes back the darkness of winter and is restored to a new and flourishing life. In this way, Lent becomes a time for “spring cleaning” for our souls. Just as in our own houses, that usually means clearing out the junk that has accumulated over the past year. In the same way, we look to God to expose those places in our hearts that have become cluttered with things that would distract us from what is most needed in our life with God. Of course, many of us are not inclined to look at our messy house. This is why self-examination, repentance, and fasting are important parts of our participation in Lent. Lent is a time to acknowledge our struggles and our humanity.
Lent becomes a time for “spring cleaning” for our souls.
Lent has been known as the season when Christians “give up” something, which is certainly an important component of Lent. However, “giving up something” in Lent is never an end in itself. Otherwise, we make it about us. The practices of Lent invite us to intentionally enter into disciplines of clearing out a spiritual malady that has unintentionally settled in our soul and put us in a state of disarray. Mostly, the practices create the space or a disruptive rhythm we desperately need to make room for something different; something we need to know, do, or experience…something more life-giving than all of the randomness of our days.
Ultimately, the practices of Lent are about us returning to and being restored by God in a fresh way. In this way, Lent becomes not an obligation but an opportunity to start again. Just like spring, Lent is also the act of beginning our spiritual life all over again refreshed, reoriented, restored, and where beauty can be found.
Lent becomes not an obligation but an opportunity to start again.
A word of caution. Without a proper understanding of Lent, there is always a propensity that we can turn the practices of Lent like repentance, confession, self-examination, prayer, and generosity into merely outward rituals where we give up something detached from meaning. Any ritual, discipline, practice, or whatever – that does not ultimately lead us to a deeper connection with the Spirit of Christ who lives in us, soon morphs into empty religiosity and we run the risk of our intentions merely becoming a form of deadening legalism (which is always empty and exhausting). God desires a broken and contrite heart given over to a willingness to be honest about the truth we discover about ourselves. “Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place” (Psalm 51:6).
Lent may not be your regular practice, but I invite you on this journey with me. You can read the posts daily or pause when something jumps out at you and attend to that for a while. (There is a good chance God is in it). Be intentional but also allow your Lenten experience to unfold in unexpected ways, always anticipating the new life God is wanting to birth in you.
A PRAYER FOR LENT by Henri Nouwen
“How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death?
Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess…. I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it.
O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.”
(Nouwen, Henri (2002). A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee. Image Books.)
What about “looking at your messy house” sounds inviting? Scary?
What obstacles (internal and external) do you anticipate that would keep you from fully engaging in the Lenten practices?
What sound hopeful about Lent?
Thanks Gail! I have not replied in the past to your posts, but I want you to know that I find them helpfuI! I am a pastor and clinical social worker in Spokane, and was told about your site by one of my clients several years ago. We crossed paths earlier in life. I am a 1977 graduate of Northwest College. David Chittim
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Hi David! I know who you are! Thank you for taking the time to respond… and for your kind words. I am glad to know you might find them meaningful. I hope you can continue to join me in our journey through Lent!