Having been raised in a tradition that doesn’t routinely commemorate the season of Lent, I have found myself a little confused on what this season really means. I had heard of Lent, usually in the context of friends giving up a food item, or facebook, or something else for Lent. This was my only frame of reference to go off of.
Last year we began some Anglican traditions during the period of Lent. We didn’t start attending an Anglican church though until right around Easter, so I still didn’t have a clear explanation of what Lent was. So, the only thing I added to my previous small understanding was that certain words, like Hallelujah, were not said in worship during Lent.
This year, I have found myself full of curiosity on what this season is truly about. We are now part of an Episcopal church and I’ve enjoyed following along with the church calendar, learning more about these exciting traditions. But for some reason, the meaning of Lent, seemed illusive to me.
I’ve tried to take in the descriptions, invitations, liturgy and everything else in the church services and discussions, and every time I think I have it figured out, a new element is added. There are layers here, layers that go so much deeper than I am used to going in church worship. They are layers that are not bright and light and cheerful, but rather dark, deep, and somber. At first I thought that meant that it was sad, but it isn’t sad. Our deepest hope and our greatest joy are found in the dark. That is a truth I already knew, having experienced it as we walked through the valley of the shadow of death with Emma.
So, let me attempt to write what I have learned so far. This is by no means an in depth explanation of the season of Lent, but rather just glimpses into a season that I have never looked at closely before. I’m still figuring out how it all fits together and I’m not even sure I have it all right, but that seems to be the best part of living our life in the path of the church calendar, we learn by doing, and we learn more by doing it again the next year, and the next, and so on, and so on.
Lent is a recognition of the truth that we are human beings and that one day we shall die. Last Wednesday, I attended my very first Ash Wednesday service. I knelt at the altar rail as the priest put ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross and said the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. As we recognize the truth that we cannot save ourselves from our eventual death, we begin to look for the hope of something beyond the physical. Our soul longs for the life eternal, the spiritual truths that go beyond our physical bodies. As our rector says, “We are not God.” And when we recognize that we are not God, then we are ready to look to the One who is God.
Lent is a time of repentance. Repentance literally means “changing our minds.” I get really confused about repentance. I don’t think I’m very good at it. Oh, I’m really good at confession: saying I’m sorry. I’m also really good about intending to do better in the future. But that actual real changing of my mind so that practical change ensues is harder. I haven’t really learned how to DO this. But I know this is part of what Lent is for, recognizing where we have gone wrong, and deciding to return to the way of life.
Lent is a time of spiritual discipline. Many people practice the discipline of fasting or giving up some of our luxuries during this time. When done with the right intent, I think this is a good way to focus our attentions on what truly matters in life. As Jesus said when he was tempted in the wilderness, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Our rector encouraged us not to think so much about what to give up for Lent, but rather to ponder on what areas of our life God would have us work on. Once we discover that, then we can decide if giving something up or adding something in will help us accomplish that growth.
Lent is a communal season. Together we feast on Shrove Tuesday. Together we kneel on Ash Wednesday. Together we worship on each feast day (Sunday). Together we pray. Let’s not approach Lent alone, but rather draw close to those around us. We are all on this journey together. We all share the same sorrows, face the same temptations, and search for the same joy.
Lent is a season of hope. Through all the prayers of repentance, the words of mortality, and the songs of fasting, there is an overwhelming sense of hope. We don’t ask for forgiveness not knowing whether or not we will be forgiven. We don’t sacrifice our luxuries in order to appease an angry God. We don’t focus on our mortality with no hope of a life after death. Even as we recognize our need for a Savior, we turn and worship that very Savior. Christ has come, he has risen, he is triumphant. We begin the season of Lent already knowing that what comes after is the celebration of Easter. Even the ashes that touch our foreheads come from the palm leaves of the previous Palm Sunday. Everything we do is always tied to that hope that Jesus has given us.
I think there is more, but this is a good start. As I’ve pondered these things, I found that the beginning of Lent overlaps with Emma’s heaven birthday. This has been incredibly appropriate as I’ve learned more of what Lent is supposed to be. Emma’s death stands as a stark reminder of our mortality and our inability to evade death, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. Even though I wasn’t fasting for 40 days, I have been fasting from my computer and TV every February 21st since Emma died. And I’ve seen firsthand how sometimes God can use this time to speak truth into my life. This year, on February 23rd (the day after Emma’s heaven birthday) a dear friend had to say good-bye to their daughter, just as I did to Emma. Knowing that they were facing this pain for several days before it happened has reminded me what a blessing it is to be able to share this pain with others. Because I have known the pain of loss, I can face theirs with them with confidence. I can’t really lessen their pain, but hopefully I can walk beside them as they walk the path of grief. And there is HOPE. Emma’s death has been possibly the greatest encouragement in my life to hold on to hope. Without hope, it is meaningless, but with hope, it is full of meaning.