A season in the wilderness


e are coming up on the season of Lent, and so it is time to do a bit of thinking as to how you might engage this season in a meaningful way. To walk intentionally through Lent  gives the celebrations of Easter a depth and significance that can easily slip by in a society that pays more attention to the Easter bunny and chocolate eggs than to the story of the resurrection… so read on, and give some consideration to how you might observe this season in the wilderness.

*We mark the beginning of Lent with an Ash Wednesday liturgy, March 9 at 7:00pm.

So what is this season called Lent?

Lent is the forty-day liturgical season stretching from Ash Wednesday through to Easter Eve. This year Ash Wednesday falls on March 9, with Easter Day coming on April 24. 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. A couple of years back 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.

But 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, set a realistic goal for yourself, whether that is reading a psalm a day or perhaps working through a gospel one chapter at a time.

Where does that practice come from?

Basically, it is modeled after the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his own ministry, which itself echoes the forty years that the freed Hebrew slaves spent in the Sinai wilderness, being prepared to enter the promised land. The first record we have of a forty day period of preparation 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 just 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 to 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.

One Response to A season in the wilderness

  1. Deborah says:

    Thank you so much for this. You have put a spin on Lent for me that I have not heard before. I always associated Lent to be a time to give something up that will draw me closer to the Lord. It being a more me and God focused Lent But when you talked about praying for others and focusing on what others needs might be that puts a totally different spin on it. In the past I have been addicted to sugar and my computer and those have been things I have given up. But to be in a place where I think well I have prayed and asked is there anything God would want me to give up and this time I didn’t hear anything so I skipped Lent. But to say Lord how would you have me celebrate Lent? I am just marveling in this revelation that there is more then one way to celebrate. Again thank you for this.

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