A season in the wilderness

A reflection on how and why we might observe Lent


Ash+Crosss of February 17, we’ll be in the  season of Lent, so it is time to do a little reflecting on the nature of this liturgical season, and why we’d bother worrying about it in the first place.  In case you were wondering, the season starts on Ash Wednesday, February 17, which we mark with a liturgy at the church at 7:00pm.

What exactly is Lent?

Lent is the forty day liturgical season stretching from Ash Wednesday through to Easter Eve. This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 17, with Easter Day coming on April 4. The forty days, however, are interrupted by the six Sundays that come within this period, because Sundays are always resurrection days or “little Easters.”  Still, in our Sunday worship during Lent, we actually “fast” from singing or saying the word “Alleluia,” as a steady reminder of the larger season in which those Sundays fall.

What does the word “lent” mean?

The word “lent” is not particularly spiritual in its origins, in that it is simply the Teutonic word for the season of spring, which in turn was derived from the root word for “long,” because over the spring the days begin to noticeably lengthen.

How is it observed?

Traditionally Lent has been understood as a season of “self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the reading and meditating on the word of God” (from the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada). In the popular imagination, this has often been reduced to “giving up _______ for Lent”, with the blank filled in by everything from chocolate and doughnuts to dairy and eggs. The emphasis on food has to do with the tradition of fasting during this season, with the Canadian Book of Common Prayer (1962) listing Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as “major fasts,” and the forty days of Lent as “days of abstinence.” Interestingly, Fridays throughout the year are also listed as days of abstinence, which was typically observed by refraining from eating meat on that day.

Yet giving up some favourite food might not be the discipline that works for everyone. The idea here is to follow a practice for a season, which metaphorically tips your balance just enough to serve as a reminder that you are in a different season. Maybe that is a food or drink item, but it could also be clothes shopping, TV watching, maybe playing the car stereo⎯or plugging into your iPod on the bus⎯during your commute to work. Last year I read an article in The Christian Century, which reported that thousands of Facebook users had joined “Giving up Facebook for Lent” groups on the site (“Giving up online social networks for Lent?” The Christian Century, April 7, 2009). In the same article, the following was reported that in Italy,

Bishops are urging Catholics to do without an array of electronic appliances, including iPods and devices to send text messages, according to Associated Press. “It’s a small way to remember the importance of concrete and not virtual relationships,” suggested the Modena diocese.

By the way, because Sundays area always “little Easters,” any discipline you might be following is lifted each Sunday for the day, which can be a very good thing indeed.  And aside from fasting from something, there are those other pieces:

self-examination and penitence – which maybe means finding the courage to spend some time getting honest with yourself

almsgiving – setting aside some money⎯or maybe some volunteer time⎯as an expression of concern for people living in need and/or poverty

reading and meditating on the word of God – I know, I know, you’ve tried this before, and after a few days you skip a day and it all goes downhill after that. So, use these 40 days, and read day by day through chapters 40 to 66 of Isaiah, and then through the 16 chapters of Mark. That is actually 42 days worth of reading, so start a day early, and then read Mark 16 on Easter Day.  Or maybe there is another book you could be working with, something that takes you deep into the season.  Read that with intention.  We’ll make sure we’ve got good books for Lent available at the church over these next several Sundays.

Where does this practice come from?

Basically, it is modeled on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his own ministry, which itself echoes the 40 years that the liberated Hebrew slaves spent in the Sinai wilderness, being prepared to enter the promised land. The first record we have of a 40 day period of preparation for Easter is found in the “Canons of Nicaea” from the year 325. In other words, we’ve been at this a long, long time.

Why would I bother?

Seeing Lent as a desert or wilderness season is significant. In the ancient world, deserts were not only places of austerity, but were also understood as being dangerous. “The desert was then considered a fearful place,” writes Kathleen Norris in her book Acedia and Me, “where only demons dared to live.” In The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane writes,

Desert and mountain terrain provokes the identification and reordering of boundaries. It confronts people with their edges. In wild places, terror and growth-toward-wholeness walk hand in hand.

To move into a bit of symbolic wilderness is to risk finding out something about yourself that maybe makes you a bit uneasy. But as Lane rightly observes, that might well be linked with growth.

The other thing is that some people spend an awful lot of their life in the desert. Someone whose partner has died or who struggles with depression or who is dealing with some deep family crisis might feel like it is wilderness year ‘round. If that happens to be you, then maybe Lent can give you a language and a practice that could help you believe there is a way across the desert. If, on the other hand, your life is pretty good and your day to day concerns fairly routine, then Lent could well help you to be more mindful and prayerful of those for whom life just isn’t quite so easy to navigate. In other words, though we might choose a personal Lenten discipline very much on our own, part of what it should do is to deepen our connections with those around us.

Dear friends in Christ,
every year at the time of the Christian Passover
we celebrate our redemption
through the death and resurrection
of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration
and to renew our life in the paschal mystery.
We begin this holy season
by remembering our need for repentance,
and for the mercy and forgiveness
proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord,
to observe a holy Lent…
(from the Book of Alternative Services)

Find a bit of that practice or discipline and follow it through the season.  Who knows what you might learn.

Jamie Howison

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