I must admit I wasn’t prepared for the question. This time last year, I was driving down a highway, on my way to visit someone in the hospital, when one of my Bible study students (with whom I was on speakerphone) asked me the big question on her mind.
“What the heck is Lent, anyway?”
I actually wasn’t really sure how to answer her. I mean, I knew what it is and what it means. The problem was that I was approximately five minutes away from my destination and in my car rather than face-to-face with her. It made me think, though. Growing up in a faith tradition that emphasized the church calendar, I took it for granted that people knew the ebb and flow and why we celebrate the seasons of faith as we do.
What is Lent?
Technically speaking, Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter. It begins with Ash Wednesday, and leads up to Holy Week. On Ash Wednesday, many churches will have services, during which ashes are placed on congregants’ foreheads or hands in the shape of a cross. In the following days, many people will give up something for Lent, a practice that is known as fasting. There are many different things people may “fast” from, including food, social media, television, sugar, etc. Holy Week is the period of time in which people remember (and sometimes re-enact) the passion, which is the series of events that led up to the crucifixion of Christ. But, Lent is also so much more than that.
Lent’s Deeper Meaning: Ash Wednesday
Why in the world do people make an extra trip to church so they can get ashes smeared on their foreheads? The ashes are meant to symbolize both our mortality and our sin. The ashes we wear on Ash Wednesday are traditionally made from the same palm branches we waved on Palm Sunday, in praise of the King of Kings riding into Jerusalem. They are the symbol of our praise turned to ashes in the face of our sin. Because of the penitential nature of Lent, congregations often do not even participate in joyful worship and frequently omit the word “allelujah” from any of their liturgy during this time.
We wear the ashes on our foreheads (or hands) to remind us first that we are but dust, and that it is the weight of our own sin and mortality that makes redemption necessary. Marking them in the shape of the cross reminds us not only of the penalty of that sin, but also how far the love of God will reach in order to save us. It reminds us that God remembers we are but dust, and that He has mercy on us despite the ravages of our own sin. There is no place our sin can take us where God’s love will not go farther still to reach us.
The reason all of this is so important is that seeing ourselves rightly is absolutely essential to our faith formation. None of this remembrance, when instituted properly, should have its end in guilt or shame. The intended result is conviction rather than condemnation. The purpose is not to make us feel like terrible people, but to turn our hearts to God by helping us feel our desperate need for his grace and the love with which He freely gives it.
Not only does this help us in our relationship with God, but it also helps us in our relationships with others. When I do not see myself rightly, it is impossible for me to truly see others rightly. However, if I am keenly aware of my need for undeserved grace, it makes it much more difficult for me to harbor condemnation against another. The only thing that enables me to pray on someone’s behalf, “Lord, have mercy” is the full knowledge that I don’t deserve mercy any more than anyone else. Even so, God has mercy on us.
Fasting During Lent
During Lent, many people choose something to remove from their lives for that 40-day period of time. Typically, it would be something that may cause significant discomfort in abstaining from it. Sometimes, in keeping tradition, we forget why we do the things we do. So, what is the deal with fasting during Lent?
The premise behind fasting during Lent is to not just remove something from your life, but also to add something in its place. In the act of abstaining (say, from a meal, for example), you would want to replace it with something that would help you make space for God in your life (like praying and/or reading Scripture during the time you would normally be eating). Many people do not include Sundays in their fasting during this time, using it as a free day. People also frequently abstain from all meats on Fridays, with the exception of fish. This is why there are many Friday fish fry events during this season.
But, why do we do this? Fasting makes space for God in our lives, and it certainly strengthens our relationship with God. In addition, fasting can be a means of discipline in our lives, teaching us to not give in to the things that typically gratify us. In abstaining from food, for example, we teach ourselves that we do not have to always give in to our fleshly appetites, but that our spiritual connection with God is what needs to rule us. Fasting is also seen as an act of devotion, that we are willing to give up things that may be enjoyable to us, for the sake of pursuing God.
Also, for the sake of curiosity, the tradition of fasting during Lent is what spurred the tradition of Mardi Gras, aka “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday,” which is a day of feasting on rich foods (pancakes, king cake, etc.) and participating in flamboyant celebrations before entering a penitential season of fasting.
The Culmination: Holy Week
All of our remembrance of sin and grace, all of our fasting, and all of our drawing near to God culminates in what we call Holy Week. Holy Week is the week leading up to Easter Sunday. Many communities have a tradition of holding noon-time services at alternating churches during this week. Perhaps the most celebrated moments of this particular week, however, are Holy Thursday (sometimes called Maundy Thursday) and Good Friday.
Holy Thursday is the day we commemorate the Last Supper, which was the last Passover Celebration Jesus had with his disciples before he was crucified. Many communities and churches observe this day by having a dramatic representation of the Last Supper and/or having a musical service with songs that detail all the events of that day, from the washing of the disciples’ feet, all the way to the cross. Some congregations have a foot washing ceremony, in which members gather to wash the feet of their brothers and sisters in Christ, just as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.
Good Friday is the most somber day of the whole Lenten season. It is the day that we observe the crucifixion of Christ. So, what is good about Good Friday? Well, that death penalty was ours to bear, and Jesus bore it on our behalf. It is the day that He made the ultimate sacrifice and defeated sin and death once and for all, so that it would never have to hold power over us again. That is some good news.
Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the following Saturday are days in which there is a tension between our mourning and our hope. We mourn sin, death, and the crucifixion of our Savior, but we also wait for the hope of Easter and the resurrection. And, to our waiting, longing eyes, Sunday morning dawns bright with the knowledge that Lent is over, our mourning has ceased, and the grave is empty! “He is risen!”
That resurrection morning is the hope to which we look. But, that dawn cannot be quite so bright or feel as tearfully joyous unless we have walked through the darkness of Lent and come face-to-face with our own mortality and sin. We must learn to walk through the suffering and traverse the hard roads, much like that Via Dolorosa (“Way of Grief”), which Christ traveled on his way to the hill where He would be crucified. There can be no joy of resurrection without the crucifixion.
It is a spiritually significant thing to really observe our church calendar, but it will not have nearly the impact it could have if we do not investigate into our traditions and why we have them. However, armed with knowledge, we can enter into the seasons that teach us the story of God and his people—the story of us and our Savior—and we will never be the same again.
Patricia Taylor is a member of the Seedbed Farm Team and the editor for the Soul Care Collective.
Image attribution: czarny_bez / Thinkstock