It is Ash Wednesday. Today many us will attend a service to receive the imposition of ashes–a dark smudge across our foreheads. This is just the first thing imposed on us in Lent, a season of self-imposed discipline. We give up chocolate, meat, coffee, alcohol, smoking–or anything that makes us happy. Jesus suffered in the wilderness and on his long, winding road to Calvary. The Church has deemed that appropriately, we should suffer too. We wander through today our faces marked with soot and scowls. Fasting makes us hangry. Our head throbs from caffeine withdrawal. We snap at others because all our go-to-coping mechanisms are declared off limits.
Is this what Lent is about? Here are excerpts for the top three Google hits answering the question, “What is Lent?”:
What is Lent? Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. (from UpperRoom.org -Lent 101)
Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday. Lent comes from the Anglo Saxon word lencten, which means “spring.” The forty days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. (from umc.org- “What is Lent and Why does it Last Forty Days?”)
Lent is a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial traditionally observed by Catholics and some Protestant denominations. It begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. The length of the Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, not counting Sundays). During Lent, participants eat sparingly or give up a particular food or habit. It’s not uncommon for people to give up smoking during Lent, or to swear off watching television or eating candy or telling lies. It’s six weeks of self-discipline. ( from gotquestions.org – “What is the meaning of Lent?)
These definitions augment one another. Lent is a season of self-denial leading up Easter for the purpose of our growing close to God. Lent is one of the two great preparatory seasons of the church. But whereas Advent is full of announcement of the in-breaking of the Kingdom, Lent reminds us that on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem suffering and death await.
I am guided by the conviction that Christianity is Good News. Christians are God’s Good News People. We believe that this good news culminates at Calvary where Jesus set us free from sin, death and spiritual oppression. This isn’t just a season of self-imposed suffering, self denial and sour-faces. Here we mark Christ’s confrontation and ultimate victory over the Powers.
So we can take up our cross and follow Jesus because this isn’t just a death march. Jesus wins and on his way to be crucified, he exposes the lies that propped up the political and religious hegemony of his day. Jesus died for us so that we would die to ourselves and rise again with our life in him. We participate in Lent because we know despite the hard road Jesus walked, the brokenness and violence he suffered, he would bring wholeness and shalom to all who trust in him.
Give up coffee. Give up meat. Give up pleasure and lay aside vice. But don’t do it with a sour face. Don’t do it with the shallow hope of becoming a better you. Do so in the strong confidence that Jesus suffered every shame, every pain, every hurt at Calvary because he had something better for you–abundant life, peace with God, reconciliation and justice for all. Fasting is an appropriate response both to prepare and to mark the sacred moment of what Jesus may be doing in you. He didn’t avoid pain, we shouldn’t either. But in the midst of sorrow we have joy because our salvation awaits.
Jesus is on the road, his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. Whatever holds you in bondage Christ has come to set you free. This is good news.