A word or two on the season of Lent, and why you might bother…
Lent is the forty-day liturgical season stretching from Ash Wednesday through to Easter Eve. This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 22, with Easter Day coming on April 8. The forty days, however, are interrupted by the six Sundays that fall within this period, because Sundays are always resurrection days or “little Easters.” What this means is that if you do decide to follow a Lenten discipline, you get a break on Sundays; see the section below on “How it is observed.” 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.
- 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.”
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.
And remember, because Sundays area always “little Easters,” any discipline you might be following is lifted each Sunday for the day, which can be a very welcome thing indeed. And aside from fasting from something, there are those other pieces:
-self-examination and penitence – which 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’ve got good books for Lent available for loan at the church.
- 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.
- Why would I bother?
Seeing Lent as a desert or wilderness season is significant. To move into a bit of symbolic wilderness is to risk finding out something about yourself that maybe makes you a bit uneasy.
The other thing, though, is to be aware 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.
So, find a bit of that practice or discipline and follow it through the season. Who knows what you might learn?
Wednesdays in Lent:
- February 22 – 7:00pm – Liturgy for Ash Wednesday
- February 29, March 7, 14, 21 and 28 – 7:00pm – Lenten Evening Prayer services
- April 4 – 6:30 until 8:00pm – Walking the Stations of the Cross – You can arrive anytime between 6:30 and 8:00pm, and join a small group of people to walk the Stations of the Cross. A meditative practice involving both words and visual images, each group will take no more than 20 minutes to complete its own walk.
*And thanks to Helen Lyons, for her image of Jesus praying in the garden. It is taken from our publication Toward What We Can Scarcely Imagine and Scarcely Refuse: A Book for Lent.