by Rev. Elizabeth
Beginning this Wednesday, March 6, we will begin one of the most ancient seasons of the church, Lent. In the wider culture of the United States, Lent is likely known as a time to give something up. Lots of people give up chocolate. Some people give up Facebook. Growing up in Cleveland, a very Catholic city, Lent was a time when you didn't eat meat on Fridays (which meant there were delicious fish fries everywhere on Friday for six weeks in late winter). Lent, however is so much more than that.
The Episcopal and Lutheran traditions are both Liturgical traditions. This means that we have a pattern to how we worship together (the Ordo), but it also means we have a pattern of how we live our lives together that is measured in a cycle of seasons that repeat each year and (for many) a pattern to our days. This idea of a pattern of life together is ancient, reaching back into time before Christianity, and into cultures across the globe. This Christian iteration of a pattern of life together, liturgy, has grown and evolved over time. A Lenten season of 40 days was commonly observed as early as the year 330 AD (while Christmas would not become a common practice until the 6th century!) . When we observe Lent, we are engaging in an ancient practice of the church, rooting ourselves into the Christian faith and Christian practice by engaging in a practice shared by some of the earliest Christians. In a time when it feels like everything is going SO FAST and changing all the time, there is incredible beauty, stillness, and transcendence of the cultural moment in engaging the ancient practice of Lent.
Lent is a 40 day period of examination of our lives, an attempt to re-orient ourselves towards what really matters, as we walk with Jesus towards his betrayal and arrest (Maundy Thursday), his death on the cross (Good Friday), his time with death (Holy Saturday), and his defeat of death as he was resurrected (Easter). For many communities historically and today, Lent is a time of preparation for baptism, during which baptismal candidates engage in activities such as study of scripture, repentance of sins, daily prayer and other forms of spiritual disciplines as they prepare to die to their old selves and to be born anew in Christ through the sacrament of Baptism.
Why 40 days? The number 40 appears prominently in the Bible, most notably as the number of years the people of Israel wandered in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt before being led to the Holy Land and the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted by the adversary after his baptism. Both of these are ways we can think about how we approach the season of Lent. Lent is a time to sit with difficult things.
During Lent we can sit with feelings of being lost, being lonely, feeling far from the presence of God, how we hold on to those fleeting moments when we are viscerally aware of God's presence while we wander through this life, and finding or engaging practices that nourish us for the journey of life. We can also spend time observing the things that call us away from God (be those things power, wealth, and glory or shame and self-doubt) and do what we need to do to turn back towards God. Lent is a season in which we are called to practice metanoia (the Greek word we usually translate as repentance). Metanoia is the changing of direction or transformation of ones heart. We generally talk about repentance as a process -- self-examination (we look inside and see where we have gone wrong), confession (stating what we have done wrong/apologizing), atonement (reparation or trying to make things right).
We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, a day when we hear scripture readings of God's call for us to do justice in this world along side of readings reminding us to be humble. We are reminded as individuals and as a community that this is not permanent, that we will die, with the marking of a cross on our heads in oil and ashes while we are told, "From dust you came, to dust you shall return." The universal truth which all of us, no matter what we believe, understand to be true.
We move through Lent engaging our own personal and/or communal practices of penitence and/or discipline. On Maundy Thursday, we remember the final supper Jesus had with his friends, his grief as he prayed in the garden, and the denial and betrayal of his friends. On Good Friday, we spend time contemplating the death of Jesus, the death of God, on the cross; the violent, state-sanctioned death of an innocent man, and what it means that through that death we receive salvation. We keep vigil on Holy Saturday, watching for his promised resurrection. Late Saturday or early Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Christ and the defeat of death.
So, you may be wondering, what should I do during Lent? I have some... strong opinions on this. Use Lent as a time for self examination. Take on a new spiritual practice (or try one each week!), try a new way of prayer, take up daily study of scripture, spend five minutes a say in wonder at the amazing gift that is you, or take up a practice of gratitude. With the prevalence of disordered eating in our society, I generally advise against practices that are really just diets disguised as spiritual practice or practices that reinforce the ideas that there is some kind of body appearance that will make one more worthy of love. Spiritual practices or disciplines can too easily be used to disguise the ways we punish, torment and shame ourselves, and Lent is a time it is very easy to engage these ways of being. Engage in practices that bring you closer to God, closer to yourself, closer to those around you.
Lent is a time for connecting to the ancient practices of the Christian faith, connecting to God and to ourselves. Find a practice that will do these things, that you might be transformed through the power of Christ.