About a week before Ash Wednesday, some friends of mine began having a discussion on social media about giving things up for Lent. A few people threw out ideas for the kinds of things they might give up, and a couple of other people said they didn’t plan to give anything up at all. A couple of days later, several people who had planned to give things up for Lent had been reprimanded in one way or another by others who found the idea of giving something up for Lent to be unnecessary, or even un-Christian. To say it has been disheartening to watch people duke it out over fasting would be an understatement.
I was already scratching my head over the whole thing when I read this comment: “My church doesn’t do Lent.”
My first reaction was: “How can a church not do Lent?”
Then I remembered. I haven’t always been part of a church that observed Lent. I haven’t always been part of a church body that followed the church year. It wasn’t until I came to seminary that I realized what the word “Lent” at the top of my childhood church’s bulletin had meant. As a very young child, I attended churches that moved with the flow of the church year, but I hadn’t been old enough to really understand what those movements meant. In high school, I belonged to a non-denominational church that celebrated Christmas and Easter, but none of the other important days on the church calendar. We didn’t do Lent in that church. The only thing I knew about Lent was that my Catholic friends abstained from fish on Fridays, and that some people tried to use it as a “holy excuse” to diet from things they shouldn’t be eating or drinking anyway.
If that’s what Lent really is, then I can see why some would be relieved to say they don’t do Lent at church. If that’s what Lent really is, I wouldn’t want to do it either.
But, Lent is so much more than arbitrarily giving something up. Lent is so much more than a glorified diet. Lent is not something only our Catholic friends and family do. Lent is a journey. Lent is connection to the wider Church. Lent is preparation. Lent is waiting.
And, let’s face it: we don’t prepare very well in our society. How many times do we hop in the car to go somewhere we’ve never been before without consulting a map first? And for as poorly as we prepare, we are even less adept at waiting. We are so accustomed to having worlds of information at our fingertips that we get frustrated when we have to wait for something. We get annoyed when something isn’t available immediately. Preparation seems a pointless exercise. Waiting seems like needless suffering.
But when we enter into the season of Lent and journey toward Easter with Jesus, we may find that Easter means something more than it did before. As I’ve been reflecting on Lent and why it is important to me, I started thinking about car trips with my family when I was a kid. My brother had this amazing ability to fall asleep the moment we set off for the trip. I, on the other hand, stayed awake. I would take in the scenery. As we’d move from one state to another, I would stare out the window as flat plains transitioned into rolling hills, and eventually began to lift up into majestic mountains. Even though staying awake in the car probably led me to annoy my parents with “Are we there yet?” I felt the relief, the joy, the excitement of arriving a little bit more than my brother who also had a knack for waking up as soon as we arrived. He skipped the journey, and I liked to savor it.
When we don’t do Lent, we miss the height of rejoicing because we ignore the depth of our need. The epistle reading for today reminds us, “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV). Every one of us has sinned. Each and every one of us needs a Savior, and when we don’t pause to consider how deep our need is, we won’t fully grasp the joy and gratitude of the amazing gift of love our God gave to us in Jesus.
When we don’t do Lent, we miss how many people are journeying with us. When we follow the liturgical calendar, we are moving in step with churches around the world. We are all telling the same story, walking the same path, entering into the same difficult and mysterious journey, celebrating the Christ who unites and saves. When we don’t do Lent (or follow any kind of church calendar), it can be easy to see the Christian life as a solitary journey of one believer seeking God. This kind of faith in isolation misses the beauty of the body of Christ, and the importance of corporate discernment and accountability.
When we don’t do Lent, we miss an opportunity to reinforce the narrative of salvation in our hearts. When we go through Lent and use the forty days of the season to confess our sins and to seek God, we remind ourselves of the Gospel. We live it. We think about it. We tells ourselves the story again. We tell it to our children and our families and our friends. We do this by our words, and by our thoughts and actions. And, the more we tell it, the more we help those words move from a simple story we know in our heads to a story that means something real in our hearts.
Giving things up for Lent is a way to identify with the suffering of Christ. Fasting from something can be a very real way of reconnecting with God when it is done properly. But, even without an outright fast, Lent is an important journey that I look forward to every year. Though it may seem strange, I need to do Lent. It helps me set my feet on the ground, and it helps me keep my eyes on Jesus. Even though it is hard, it helps me to walk through the darkness of Lent so that I can truly see the light of Easter morning.