Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What is Lent?

“Rend your heart and not your garments.  Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.”  Joel 2:13

Rend your heart if a better definition of Lent exists, I don’t know what it could be.  The tradition of Lent reaches back to the fourth century A.D.  New converts were baptized on Easter Sunday in those days, and Lent was the official time of preparation for that act of faith.  So, originally, Lent was intended to lead to baptism.

For most Christians today, Lent is more a time of spiritual renewal. In many churches, the focus is still on penance and repentance – of recognizing our own tendencies to sin – but it can also mean any time of concentrated searching for a deeper relationship with God.

The season of Lent is said to last 40 days, though if you look at a calendar it actually spans more than that.  And in fact, even today, various traditions count the days differently.  In general, though, the 40 days of Lent begin on the seventh Wednesday before Easter and run up to Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), without counting any of the Sundays between.

But the point of Lent, or any other time of spiritual focus, shouldn’t be to follow a set of prescriptions and rules.  It should be to seek a deeper understanding of and commitment to God.  It’s not a time to check off days on a calendar; it’s a time to rend your heart, to do some spiritual housecleaning, to take a long, hard look at what’s inside you.  A time to allow God to show you the work He’s ready to do in your life. That’s something you can do no matter what your faith tradition might be. 

Lent continues to be a time of preparation for Easter.  There’s nothing magically spiritual about the dates – God is as open and willing to accept you at any other time of the year as He is during Lent. And it is a tradition, not a biblical mandate.  But in a world that makes it difficult to focus on God and seek Him with determination, Lent, like Advent, is a natural and obvious time for such a quest.

Giving up something for Lent is one traditional way to observe this season. Sometimes people choose a sin or a bad habit to give up, following the theme that Lent is a time to repent.  Sometimes people choose to give up something pleasurable, like candy, following the theme of denying yourself for the sake of Christ. One specific form of this is to fast during Lent, limiting yourself to one meal a day during the week, with no meat or fish.

In any case, some people feel that, for the 40 days of Lent, the idea is to eliminate something from your life in deference to God, both to free yourself and to focus on your relationship with Him.  Does God care? Yes, I believe He does.  I believe that any time we turn from our sins, or sacrifice that which we love, in order to have a closer relationship with God, He cares very much.  Is God moved by your actions?  That depends, I think, on why you’re doing it: are you “giving it up for Lent” out of ritual, law, or show? Then, no, I don’t think God is moved (remember the Pharisee and the tax collector of Luke 18:9 – 14).  But if your motives are pure and your desire is for God alone, then I believe God will see your acts of devotion and hear your longings for more of Him, and fill you with the fullness of His presence.

Here are two simple tests you can use to check for proper motives:  1) How many people do you tell that you’re giving up something for Lent?  2) Is it purely a ritual for you, or a true act of devotion?

If you want to take part in the Lenten tradition of “giving something up,” even if that’s not a practice your particular church emphasizes, then I have a suggestion.  In all my years of studying theology, I’ve come to believe that the definition of sin is quite simple: sin is selfishness.  We sin against God by being self-determining, doing what we want instead of what He wants.  In a very real way, by being selfish, we choose to be our own god.  God calls that idolatry.

We also sin against others by being selfish, taking something away from them (money, freedom, happiness, love) in order that we may have it.  In a very real way, by being selfish, we are trying to be God for others.  So, if you want to give up something for Lent, how about selfishness?  Perhaps you could spend these forty days asking God to help you find the root of your own selfish motives, actions, and desires, and then cut that root.  It could be the start of something revolutionary in your life.  It could be the start of something you want to continue, even after Lent. 

May the God of love and peace, the God of forgiveness and mercy, the God of all hope and power, reign in your heart now, and for years to come, and forever and ever.  Amen.

Written by Arnold Ytreeide

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