By Kelly Wright
Up until a few years ago, I really had no idea why people practiced Lent. Not knowing much about it, other than it being a time when people gave up things they enjoyed, the whole thing seemed mysterious and uninviting to me. I mean why would anyone want to give up chocolate for six weeks? I did know that Lent was somehow connected to Easter, but my interest growing up was in the new Easter outfit and Easter Egg hunt, not the six weeks of saying “no” to things I enjoyed. You see, my faith tradition celebrated sacred days like Easter and Christmas, but not sacred seasons, like Lent and Advent. Sacred seasons weren’t on my radar until a couple of years ago when I read Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross. Discovering the rhythm of living out God’s story throughout the year was an unexpected invitation to a deeper experience of knowing, loving, and following Jesus. Making space for and practicing the sacred seasons of Advent with Christmas and Lent with Easter has also brought a fullness in my life that continues to result in a deepening gratitude and love for the gift of Jesus.
So, what’s Lent and why give up chocolate (or whatever pleasure you decide to give up)? A very concise history of the practice of Lent leads us back to church traditions that were established to remember and celebrate the life of Christ. The word Lent, meaning length, denoted springtime in the original context, and was a period set aside for praying and fasting before the Easter celebration. Presently, in western Christianity, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which is February 17 this year, and lasts for the six weeks or approximately 40 days leading to Easter.
Forty days of Lent were set aside in the remembrance of the forty days Jesus spent alone in the desert. In Matthew 4, we see that after Jesus was baptized, He was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:2 says, “After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” Symbolically, we are invited to join with Jesus in a place of solitude and fasting from something. During our days of fasting, we make space for practices that sharpen our spiritual awareness and open us to God. For example, one year I gave up social media for Lent. Crazy, I know! But in times that I would have been scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, instead I had space (and a surprising amount of space I might add) for spiritual practices such as reading the Bible, doing a daily devotion for Lent, praying, serving others, and silence (both mentally and physically). It was both challenging and delightful!
Thinking about what to give up for Lent leads us to the very popular and exciting topic of addressing the temptations that trip us up. *said with much sarcasm* But, just as Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil, we too need to make space for a deeper awareness of our temptations. To help narrow our focus, it is helpful to look at the three temptations Jesus faced in the desert. In a deep dive into these three temptations, Peter Scazzero, in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, sums them up in these three categories:
Temptation 1: Satan tempted Jesus to turn bread out of stones to relieve his hunger. Temptations that focus on performance or “I am What I Do”– How easily earthly success tempts us to find our worth and value outside of God’s inexhaustible, free love for Him in Christ
Temptation 2: Satan tempts Jesus to leap from a pinnacle and rely on angels to break his fall. Temptations that focus on possessions or “I am What I Have” – Depending on material possessions to define who I am
Temptation 3: Satan tempts Jesus to kneel before him in return for all the kingdoms of the world. Temptations that focus on popularity or “I am What Others Think of Me” – True freedom comes when we no longer need to be somebody special in other people’s eyes because we know we are loveable and good enough.
As you consider these three categories of temptations, are any or all of these challenges for you or is it just me? The gift of Lent (although think of it more like the gift of a dentist appointment rather than a Christmas gift) is that this sacred season allows us to make space to see where we are getting hung up. We need extended time to explore what’s underneath our drive to perform, why we desire more when we have what we need, and why we are dependent on what others think of us.
When I gave up social media for Lent, all three temptations where made much clearer. How often do I post in an effort to highlight my performance, show off what I have, and/or focus on how many likes or comments my posts get? Now please hear me, posting on social media is not bad or wrong, but what I had to recognize was a deeper awareness of my motivations on social media. I’m grateful for the forty days away from social media that created space for God to show me more deeply how I was tempted to fill my life with things that were leaving me empty.
When speaking on the true message and the gift of Lent, Theologian Alexander Schmemann speaks of this season as a “bright sadness.” In sadness we see more clearly our sins and are reminded that it was for our sins that Jesus died. But with lament in the sacred season of bright sadness, we also hold great joy –the joy of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus’ death and resurrection provides for us. Even the natural season of winter moving into spring, sets the stage for Lent. Winter’s darkness, where days are short and sunlight is brief, gradually moves into springtime. The darkness is overcome by the light in both the natural and spiritual world, a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world.
So for you – maybe you’ve participated in the sacred season of Lent before and are looking for a fresh way to engage or maybe you have heard about Lent, but haven’t been sure what it is or what to do with it. Please consider joining in on the journey as we prepare our hearts and lives for Easter in this personal, yet together way. Don E. Saliers writes, “Lent is a double journey—a journey together and alone toward the mystery of God’s redemptive embrace in the death and resurrection of Christ. At the same time, it is a journey into the depths of our humanity.” If you are sensing an invitation to Lent, we would love to journey alongside you in these offerings that just might be what your heart and soul are longing for, especially this year:
Daily: We have copies of Not By Bread Alone by Mary Poust, a daily reflection for Lent. Mary is a writer, retreat leader, and author of numerous books. With her background in Catholicism and her blog on the spiritual journey, this resource serves as a daily guide for the season. Email to get your copy (while supplies last!).
Weekly: Beginning next week, check out the Faith and Community Blog on Wednesdays for weekly reflections on Lent.
Ash Wednesday: February 17 is Ash Wednesday. Be considering what God is inviting you to abstain from during this season of Lent. Fasting can be giving up certain foods, as well as activities and substances. Marjorie Holmes writes, “In a more tangible, visceral way than any other spiritual discipline, fasting reveals our excessive attachments and the assumptions that lie behind them. Fasting brings us face-to-face with how we put the material world ahead of its spiritual Source.” Is there something connected to the three temptations (Performance, Possessions, Popularity) that God may be asking you to set aside for forty days?
“O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.” Henri Nouwen