What is Lent all About?
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” With these words, the priest marks an ashen cross on the forehead of each person. Ash Wednesday has come, and the season of Lent is begun. Long after the ashes have been washed off our faces, the words will continue to echo in our ears. Our mortality has been held up before us; our frailty has been recalled. The gloss of magazine pages and the shimmer of the flat screen suddenly seem shallow and false. Lent brings us face-to-face with the more solemn side of our reality.
But frailty and solemnity are not really the point of Lent. Easter is the point of Lent.
That may sound strange, but it’s true. Early in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the priest addresses the people with a word about the meaning of Lent. This has caught my attention with fresh energy each year. The priest says:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent...
Do you hear the Eastertide underpinnings of Lent in those words? It was the seriousness with which the early Christians looked upon the Lord’s passion and resurrection that gave way to Lent. It was the call to participate in Christ’s resurrection through baptism that led to Lent. It was the promise of reconciliation and restoration that inspired Lent. It was the free gift of pardon and absolution that caused Christians to begin the observance of a holy Lent. It was the sheer weight and glory of Easter that drove the church to a time of serious preparation.
Christ said he had come in order that we might have life and have it abundantly. He fulfilled that purpose. Life—Easter resurrection life—is ours! That is more than you or I can process in the few short seconds it takes to read that statement. In fact, at our typical pace and lifestyle, no amount of time can prepare us to fully hear and receive it. The statement of Easter is simply too big, too significant. It takes a good amount of preparation—and slowing down—to take it in.
And that is what Lent does; that is what Lent is. With serious minds and focused, steady hearts, we walk the slow pilgrimage toward the summit of Easter. We engage Lent that we might embody Easter, might be embraced by it.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.
Tips for Making Lent Work
So you’ve decided to give Lent a try this year. But you’re new to it perhaps. You’re not sure how to go about it, and you’re looking for a few tips to make Lent work. If that’s you, read on. Below are a few odds and ends (organized as FAQs) intended to help you get the most out of this deep and meaningful Christian tradition.
What will I get out of a Lenten discipline? The best response, I think, is: Let’s find out! Our modern mindset is bent on knowing “the point” of something before we try it. This often leads to us micromanaging the experience to make it provide the predetermined result. But Lent, with its tradition of disciplines, is meant to be experienced rather than controlled. Give it a try, even if you’re not sure what the point is. Centuries of Christians can attest to the value of it, but only you can find out what its effect will be on you.
Just how long is Lent? You’ve probably heard that Lent is 40 days long. But when you checked your calendar, you saw that it went from Ash Wednesday through the Saturday before Easter—which adds up to more than 40 days. What gives? This is because Lent contains no Sundays. As a somber season of penitence—one in which we ponder sin, mortality, and the death of Christ—Lent doesn’t match with the theme of Sundays. Each and every Sunday is like a mini-Easter, making them incompatible with Lent. So each Sunday between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is carefully referred to as “Sunday in Lent” rather than “Sunday of Lent.”
Then do I practice my Lenten disciplines on Sundays in Lent? Nope. Sundays in Lent are days of rest from whatever disciplines you’re practicing.
What kind of disciplines do people do during Lent? All kinds! You can come up with your own idea or grab a standard discipline (like a form of fasting). There’s no rules for this, so give it some thought and then give something a try. To get you thinking about it, it’s helpful to know that Lenten disciplines fall into two categories: Engagement and Abstinence. Disciplines of engagement involve doing something (like reading a psalm everyday), whereas disciplines of abstinence involve not doing something (like not drinking coffee…good luck with that).
Are there any disciplines you’d advise against? Well, yes, actually. Sometimes people want to use Lent to give up a bad habit or besetting sin. That’s not really the point of Lenten disciplines. Any time is a good time to make that sort of a change. However, if Lent coincides with your healthy decision, then go for it; make that change. But I’d encourage you to perhaps see that as something different from a Lenten discipline.
Can you suggest some Lenten disciplines? Sure! Just read on.
Ideas for Lenten Disciplines
Here are several sample ideas for daily disciplines during Lent:
Go data-free on your phone. Most smart phones have a data shut-off setting. Or maybe just switch it off every time you walk in your front door. This might sound ambitious, but you can do it! You may be surprised how serene your life becomes.
Cut out TV, Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, cable— your shows. You can catch up when Lent is over. Or to your surprise, after taking a hiatus, you may find you don’t care to.
Good old-fashioned alms-giving. If you gave $5 away each day, it would cost you a total of $200 for the whole season, and what a rich time it would be! Buy the coffee of the person next to you in line, give a five to the person with the cardboard sign, or send a little something to someone special. Generosity as a daily discipline is a challenge that will delight you and those around you.
Read through a portion of scripture, a bit each day. Maybe it’s the gospels. Maybe it’s the psalms or proverbs. Whatever you choose, it’s time well spent. And when Lent is over, you just might find you’ve created a new and wonderful habit.
Forego a food. Ice cream? Coffee? Beer? McDonald’s? All drive-throughs? What’s a food or drink you think it would be a challenge to let go of? Give it a try, and you’ll be surprised at the way this shapes your desires and changes some of your habits.
Daily prayer. Many of us pray regularly, but it’s a very different experience to take on prayer as a brief, daily discipline. Choose in advance what you’ll pray, when you’ll do it, and how you’ll do it.
Gratitude. What if you gave time each day to writing down something you’re grateful for? Or what if you turned those jottings into postcards and sent some words of thanks off to those you appreciate?
Bed time. Some nights you stay up late watching a movie; other nights you conk out right after dinner. What if you chose a steady bedtime as a discipline? You may find this to be a useful discipline of self-care for a season.
Rise and shine. And what about fixing a time on the other end of sleep? Set your alarm for the same time every morning, and don’t hit snooze. This is hard but pays interesting dividends.
Words of affirmation. Pay a strong, sincere compliment to someone each day. Not a bad thing to do anyway, right? Not an easy thing either, sometimes.
Memorization. Maybe there’s a poem you think would be good to commit to memory. Or a song to play on piano. Or a passage of Scripture or a portion of liturgy. What is something you could give time to daily in order to claim it in your memory?
Exercise. I’m not talking about joining a gym or anything that ambitious. Instead, just commit to something simple like taking a walk every day. Most people are entirely unaware of how powerful this practice can be!
Goodbye, Facebook. It’s almost cliché to do, but you could join the masses who abandon Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc., for Lent. What is the online activity you habituate toward the most? What might it be like to take a break from that?
Journaling. If you’ve never journaled before, then chances are you’ll find it tough…and well worth the effort. If you need a framework, try this modification of Ignatius’ practice: Each night recount the gifts of the day, the feelings you felt most strongly, and the things you are anticipating in the day ahead.
Hopefully this starter list gets you thinking about how you might engage in a Lenten discipline of your own. Whether you get creative (wear the same two outfits all season) or go traditional (fast from certain foods or specific meals), a Lenten discipline is a great way to get the most out of this season.
May God grant you the desire to take the plunge and the determination to stick with it!
Lenten blessings to you.