My first real memory of Lent was a conversation between friends who were trying to decide what to give up for the next forty days. One settled on abstaining from alcohol while another was going to give up bread. I became intrigued and confused. Having been a Christian for as long as these friends were, why hadn’t my church encouraged me to follow this practice? And more importantly, will it help me grow spiritually in new ways?
Even though the origin of Lent is open to a few possible interpretations, it has been one of the oldest observances on the Christian calendar. Some believe that its earliest mention was during the council of Nicaea (325 AD) that met to address the troubling heresy of Arianism and to align various practices of church life. Even though the details of Lent observation have evolved over the centuries, its central purpose remains the same: “self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter”.
Generally, during the 40-day period from Ash Wednesday to Easter, there is some form of fasting (particularly from meat, dairy products, and eggs), of prayer, and of giving up something pleasurable. This could include eating chocolate or drinking coffee. More recently, people are being encouraged to stop playing video games, watching movies, sending text messages, using social media, and even gossiping. Other more creative ideas include volunteering in the community, throwing away (or donating) forty things for forty days, and not eating out for forty days.
Now that last idea gave me pause.
Hasn’t that been our new reality? Because of COVID, Christians and non-Christians alike have all been asked to give up many pleasurable things including dining out, travelling, and live sporting events. Unexpectedly, we have all been in a Lenten season—for a whole year!
We have all reacted in different ways. Some people really struggled while others flourished, even when they faced similar circumstances. While it is not wise to make general conclusions as to why this occurred, it is not a stretch to imagine that one’s attitude towards giving up pleasurable things has a role to play.
Those who have a Lenten attitude during times of challenge, like the past year, experience great spiritual growth. That’s because at the heart of Lent is a self-surrendering that draws us near to God.
We may not have chosen COVID as a means of self-surrendering, but those who used it to draw near to God feel peace and rest. Timothy Willard summarizes this experience well: “Trust in the Lord, take delight in the Lord, commit your way to the Lord, be still before the Lord, wait patiently, hope in the Lord, keep his way, take refuge in him. Trust, commit, delight, wait, silence; these are words of 'giving up' of 'going without' whatever the world offers and resting in God. But I must discipline myself in going without and resting in.”
He had, in fact, decided not to fast for Lent, but rather to reorder and live out the spirit of the season as a daily lifestyle—to be less selfish and more joyful every single day. Ironically, his article was written in March 2020, right before the full impact of COVID hit. I wonder if he may have been one of a few who were truly ready to survive the pandemic.
With vaccines being distributed and the warmer months ahead, we expect to slowly return to “normal”. But if we adopt a Lenten attitude beyond just forty days, we can find joy even if “normal” never returns.
I leave you with this beautiful picture: The word ‘Lent’ comes from an early English word meaning 'to lengthen’. It comes “at a time when the hours or daytime are ‘lengthening’, as spring approaches, and so it is a time when we too can ‘lengthen’ spiritually, when we can stretch out and grow in the Spirit. We should not, therefore, place too much emphasis upon our own efforts…Just as the sun was seen to do the work of ‘lengthening’ the days in spring, so it is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who does the work of ‘lengthening’ in our spiritual growth.”
Whether during Lent leading into Easter or during the rest of this unknown year, may we continue to rest in the presence of God with a lenten heart.
This material has been prepared for informational purposes only and reflects the opinion of the author. It is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on as professional advice. You should consult appropriate professionals for your specific situation.