Lent is still kind of new and confusing to me. Every year when it arrives, I have to go google it and try to re-understand the history behind the custom so I can try to wrap my brain around it a little bit more. I didn’t grow up in church, so I walked into this faith thing completely ignorant to the traditions therein. In fact, the first time I ever saw ashes on someone’s forehead back before I was a Christian, I handed them a tissue and told them they should run to the bathroom real fast because they had “a little something on their face.”
But over the last few years, I have really begun to try to deepen my understanding of the history and culture of Christianity. I want the traditions I celebrate to be rich and meaningful to my walk, rather than just pomp and circumstance. I want to discern what these things mean to me – and even more so, what they might mean to God.
So I have been asking God some hard questions and really enjoying digging around and finding out the reasons behind some of the things Christians believe, not only because I am a total nerd and looooove to study, but because doing so has helped my faith grow exponentially. Sometimes I find really good, concrete-feeling answers to my questions. I like the solidness of those things and how comfortably I can stand on what I consider a biblical truth. But then other times, I will work a concept around in my head like one might work a loose tooth with their tongue, and still never arrive at a definitive answer (I might actually enjoy those a little more -despite my love of spreadsheets and solids- because in those instances, I am reminded yet again of just how big God really is.) And on those occasions when I come across something I simply cannot fathom in my pea-size little brain (hello, Trinity) I still reap the benefits of having spent all that time with Jesus, mulling things over and talking with Him about it.
So I wanted to do some digging on what Lent really is all about.
As is my usual practice, I went to the Bible first to see what it said. The problem with that is that the specific practice is not found anywhere in scripture that I could discern. More googling (I in no way recommend that you form the foundations of your faith online, but let’s keep things simple) showed me that the custom of Lent was actually derived by the church itself, long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and there are lots (I mean a mind blowing amount) of different theologies and denominationally-specific beliefs and practices of Lent, as well as the mathematical formulas that make up its 40 days (when it doesn’t count that way on a calendar- I tried.) I am currently emotionally and theologically incapable of trying to break all of that down and dissect it, but I do feel comfortable at arriving at and issuing a brief summary of the meaning FOR ME in this Lenten season. Allow me to share:
Lent is a time when I might possibly stop thinking about myself for a minute and pause, if only for a pin-prick of time, to remember that Jesus suffered in ministry in order to reconcile me to God.
Back before “I found Jesus,” I had a thing with numbers. I also had lots of “daddy issues,” and a thing with lists, color-coded excel spreadsheets, post-it notes, and scrubbing my tub down to the raw fiberglass when I got stressed out. I told myself that I liked order, but what I really liked what the illusion that I had some control over my life. God continues to heal me of this completely delusional way of thinking, of which I will be eternally (pun intended) grateful for. But I will admit that I still found it THRILLING to find that God uses numbers and patterns in prophesy all throughout the bible and tradition.
The number 40 is a very important number to the Christian faith and is found throughout biblical stories and history, which is why Lent has a 40-ish spin on it too. In fact, the word Lent actually means “fortieth” and is, according to my online studies, a 40 day period “marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance” for the purpose of refocusing our faith through a time of prayer, repentance and self-denial. This time period was based on other 40 day periods recorded in the bible, such as:
- Moses spending 40 days with God on Mount Sinai
- It raining for 40 days and 40 nights during the Great Flood
- The people wandering for 40 years in the wilderness before they came into the Promised Land.
- And Jesus, who despite the fact that He was the perfect Son of God, spending 40 days in total isolation, fasting and being tempted by the devil after He was baptized and before He began His public ministry.
There are tons of other biblical references to this number, all under the umbrella of there being an extended time of trial and atonement. And since self-control is not my spiritual gift, I find it convicting that I can’t go more than about 40 minutes without sinning. Or 40 seconds, depending on the day and how much sleep I got the night before.
We have, of course, somehow managed to dumb Lent down – right along with Christmas and Easter – making it about something it is not. Too often, it seems Lent is nothing more than 40 days in which we give up something we probably should have given up already.
Let me be clear; I am not judging.
My history with Lent includes giving up wine and cursing, but only for the 40 day requirement. And while I think it is good to give up those things – especially since they are things I can live life better with less of – I felt particularly pious giving them up because they were SO. DARN. HARD for me. But I am not sure Jesus cares as much about whether we abstain from coffee or wine or television or cheese enchiladas (NEVER!) as He cares whether we take the time to remember Him. And in only about 40 days, we get to celebrate the fact that He suffered and died for our sins so that by simply believing in Him, we could be made whole and new.
I am still going to give something up. A couple things actually. They are things that get in the way of my relationship and obedience to God in some abstract way or another. One of them would sound trivial in nature to everyone else, but is something that has held me captive for years and years. It is stupid that something so small will feel like so great a sacrifice, but it does, so I will release it and hopefully be set free (as He intended) from that particular bondage, at least for a time. The other thing is much bigger and will be much harder. It will more clearly shift my focus to God and off of myself or my circumstances. The other thing is complaining.
Booooooo! Hisssssss! What will I do for fun if I don’t get to complain?
Maybe this doesn’t seem like such a big deal to you, but let me help you understand why this is such a problem: Because I have practiced so long at it, complaining is not just something I DO anymore. It has somehow become who I AM. So how can I possibly give it up now and finish building a house and get through a move without the benefit of whining about it to anyone who will listen? Especially when (cue the Hallelujah chorus) I am told I can move into my home in exactly 40 days.
. . . Wait . . .
. . .
. . .
Um, there goes the light bulb.
The irony is not lost on me that Lent is a time of trial and self-denial, and the next 40 days will be some of the most stressful ones recorded in history for me. What with the move and my work being in peak season and all, I am in for a doozy with the coping mechanisms I am considering giving up. And yet, these things are nothing – are LAUGHABLE – in the face of the travesty of what happened in history during this time. My Savior, the Perfect King, the Creator of the universe, was laughed at, mocked, spit on, beaten and then hung on a cross like a common criminal. And I am worried about whether I can be bothered to be grateful.
Ouch, here comes the conviction.
My friend Julie is a new believer. She is so hungry for God’s truth and word and finding out more about this God that changed her world. It is a blast being her friend during this season and getting a front row seat to her spiritual growth. This Friday, she and I are going to sit down and talk and study and pray and watch The Passion of the Christ so we can better understand and remember the days that led up to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then apply it to our walk and our hearts. We hope to hold each other accountable over the next weeks, and I am hoping that this time of discipline in my life will result in some freedom and a more grateful heart.
May I recommend that you do the same? Whether you have a friend to explore this with or just want to find some time alone to things with God, spend some time this week determining if there anything in your life (big or small) that might be getting in the way of your relationship and obedience to God in some abstract way or another. Maybe it would sound trivial in nature to everyone else, but is something that has held you captive for years and years. Or is there something bigger- something that would take great effort – that would help shift your focus to God and off of yourself or your circumstances?
I think if we are honest with ourselves and honest before God, there is probably a whole laundry list of things that we have allowed to take up space in the corners of our hearts, leaving a little less room for His glory. Lent is almost like an opportunity to do some spiritual spring cleaning. It is also a great illustration of what our Christian walk should be, not just for 40 days but throughout our lives– A time given to thought and thankfulness; sanding down those tarnished spots, sorting through the darker corners, sweeping out the clutter of busyness and wrong priorities and bad habits, and making room for God.
You know what they say: “practice makes perfect.” They (whoever they are) also say that you can make/break habits in 28 days. If that is true, then I can see why complaining has so easily taken over my life. 🙂 So for me, I hope this 40 day Lenten season will be the beginning of a practice where I free myself from the small things that hold me back and then create a custom of better things, like a more grateful heart. May I practice so long at it, that it is not just something I DO anymore. It must somehow become who I AM.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. ~ Hebrews 12:1-2