Lent is the six and a half week season of the Christian worship year which leads up to Easter. Lent began last Wednesday. We heard of the people of Nineveh, in Jonah, fasting and repenting of their sins for forty days. We also heard about Jesus being out in the wilderness, praying and fasting and preparing for his ministry, for forty days. Well when you count back from Easter forty days, and then add in the six Sundays during that period, it gets you back to last Wednesday; that’s how we got to six and a half weeks, for Lent.
Many Christians use the season of Lent to add to their lives an extra spiritual or devotional exercise. Some go to extra worship services—like the Wednesday Noon ones here that begin this coming Wednesday. Some churches that don’t normally have a weekly Bible study add one for the season of Lent. Some people become more intentional about a daily prayer time, or make sure to read the Bible each day; reading through one of the four gospels is a good Lent exercise.
Lent is also known for people “giving up” something for the period. According to a 2014 Barna survey of Americans, the most common thing for people to give up for Lent is chocolate ( I’ll bet the first Sunday in Lent didn’t fall on Valentine’s Day that year). Coming in second is meat on particular days—meatless Fridays, for example. And then “sugar”—desserts, I’m thinking. And in fourth place, soda. The magazine I received this week which contained that survey also had a cute quote about Lent which extra-busy ministers and church music directors can relate to: One minister said “For Lent I’m giving up . . . “ Yep, that’s it—just giving up.
The idea behind giving something up for Lent, the way I understand it, is in order to create reminders for ourselves, to say our prayers or read our Bibles or whatever spiritual exercise we have added for the season. Each time we start to reach for that chocolate, and then stop ourselves, saying “Oh, wait, that’s right, I’m not having chocolate; it’s Lent”—we are reminded “and I have to make sure to have my prayer time today.”
A writer named Kimberlee Conway Ireton included in her book “The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year” a short section on Lent. I’ve done some re-writing of it for our purposes today, to better reflect the way our church understands and describes Lent. But the main concept and emphasis are hers.
She begins with the setting of an Ash Wednesday worship service, like one we held here this past Wednesday. Then she moves on to discuss the entire season of Lent; and then ends with an observance of communion, as we will do today.
Kimberlee begins by introducing her husband Doug:
DOUG CAME HOME from a morning prayer service with a black smudge on his forehead. I started to tell him so and to reach up to wipe it off when I realized what it was: the sign of the cross in ashes. It was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. I usually attend an evening service on Ash Wednesday, so the thought of Doug’s going to work for the day with an ashen cross on his forehead gave me pause. What would people think? What would they say? Of course they would notice. You couldn’t help but notice. Still, I resisted the urge to suggest that Doug wipe it off.
It doesn’t hurt to carry with us, for a day, the reminder that we have entered a season of spiritual devotion, and a season for being sorry for what we’ve done wrong and special efforts to not do those things again.
So I kept silent, and Doug left for work marked with a cross made of ashes. That evening, Doug and I went together to our church and went forward to be marked with ashes.
One focus of this particular service was about ways in which death is part of the season of Lent. It is during Lent that we tell the story of Jesus’ death, and what it means for us. It is during Lent that we can be reminded that to begin, this season, a new and better life, we may have to, in some ways, die to the old one, the one with sins we don’t want to commit any more.
We can’t be too quick to rush on to Easter and its resurrection celebration. Lent has begun, and we need to live for a little while in this dark place between Ash Wednesday’s ashes and Maundy Thursday’s bread and cup.
Lent is a time to reckon with the reality of the darkness. We do so with hope, because the season ends in Easter, in resurrection, in new life. But we can be raised to new life only if we have first died to the old one. That is the challenge, and the gift of Lent.
Lent gives us the opportunity to create space in our lives for God. When we stop to listen we may hear God calling us to repent of our sin. The cross of ashes on our foreheads that marks the beginning of Lent is no accident; in the Old Testament, people mourned their sin and repented of it in “sackcloth and ashes.” The liturgical color of the season—purple, the color of repentance—is another reminder. And in some traditions, the celebrant says, ‘Repent and believe the gospel!’”—those words we heard Jesus say in Mark 1:15—when imposing the ashes.
For Christians, sin encompasses all in our lives that separates us from Christ. Often these sins are so habitual, so deeply ingrained in our personalities that they’ve become part of who we are and we no longer see them as sin. I, for instance (meaning Kimberlee), am prone to envy, despair and self-pity. These sins consistently pull my focus off Christ and onto myself, and I need repeatedly to repent of these habits of thought and heart.
Unfortunately, the word “repentance” often leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, and conjures up images of beating oneself up. I used to think of repentance this way too. As an adolescent, I thought it meant reciting unhealthy mantras to convince myself of my own unworthiness (as if I needed to be convinced). As a young adult, I rejected repentance altogether, thinking it damaging to my fragile sense of self-worth. And then, the summer I turned 30, I had my first experience of true repentance.
Every day for an entire month, as I journaled, prayed and read the lectionary, God peeled away layers of myself. For the first time, I saw my envy, despair and self-pity not as personality quirks, but as sins. I knew, more deeply than I’d ever known, that I had failed—failed to love my friends, my husband, my son, myself; failed to pray when I had said I would; failed to notice the good gift that was my life. Instead, I had complained and whined and been ungrateful and ungracious. I felt deeply convicted of my sins.
But I did not feel despair. In fact, I felt freedom—and joy. I cried a lot, but they were tears of sorrow and gratitude. I was grateful that God was showing me all this wretchedness so I could repent of it, and leave it behind. Now I understood what St. Benedict meant when he called repentance “praying with tears” and why John the Baptist was calling people to repent.
We don’t have to beat ourselves up to repent. In fact, true repentance is the opposite: it frees us. When we repent, we acknowledge that we are in bondage to sin, and God frees us to live as the people we were meant to be. Repentance creates space in our lives; it allows us to hear the voice of God speaking to our hearts. We become reacquainted with our truest selves, the selves God created in his own image.
On Ash Wednesday, after I received the sign of the cross on my forehead, I felt Doug’s hand on the small of my back as he gently guided me to the side aisle, where two of our friends were standing. One of them held a plate of bread; the other, a chalice.
We sometimes say here, at Paris Presbyterian Church, these words as we celebrate communion: “the bread of life;” “the cup of salvation.” Jesus lived, and died, and rose again, that we might be a people of hope—not only in eternal life, but in the better, happier lives we can live today.
God, thank you for this season of Lent, and its reminders . . . that we can leave negative actions and thoughts and habits behind, that you continuously offer to forgive us and free us, to become more the people you want us to be, and we want to be. Thank you for walking with us, and carrying us, and helping us move in that direction. Amen.