Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the first day of Lent, a season of concentrated prayer, repentance, and simple living during which the church as a collective prepares herself to experience the resurrection joy that is Easter. Most people associate it with fasting—from food or other distractions; this is not an end in and of itself but is for the purpose of cultivating a greater dependence on God and an openness to his will. As Wendy M. Wright writes in her book The Rising, “The forty days of Lent celebrate the dismembering, disequilibrium, and dying that are preludes to the creative transformation of Eastertide. It is a season of being changed and emptied so that new life might come to birth in us and resurrection be found in us as well” (17).
The designation of a forty-day season leading up to the feast of the resurrection is at least as old as the fourth century, as the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 spoke of the quadragesima paschae (“forty days before Easter”). The calculation of days, however, is not that straightforward, and varies by denomination: Roman Catholics count from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (44 days), whereas most Protestants count through Holy Saturday (46 days; excluding Sundays, which are non-fast days, makes 40), and the Orthodox Church uses a different calendar entirely.
Lent is like getting your yearly physical. It’s not that we aren’t to maintain our health throughout the year but that having an “appointment” forces us to come face-to-face with the state of our souls and to really hear the Doctor’s orders. We self-examine, and then we attend to those parts of ourselves that need improvement.
Even though Lent involves pointed reflection on human neediness and the confrontation of sin, it is not meant to be all dark and glum, nor characterized only by emptying. The word “Lent” actually means “springtime”; it’s a time of renewal, growth, filling. Inspired by Jesus’s retreat into the desert to overcome temptation and more fully inhabit his baptismal identity, we too retreat into a proverbial desert, saying no to one or more things so that we can say yes to something else.
The best introduction to Lent I know of is Julie Canlis’s lecture “Lent to the Rescue!,” given February 4, 2015, at Biola University Chapel. In it she explores three words commonly associated with the season: desert, Spirit, and forty.
The desert is not typically a place people want to be, but Canlis points out that the Spirit led Jesus there, because there was something there he needed to receive. Lent is a time when we go down, of our own volition but by the Spirit’s leading, into the desert, into a bare and quiet space, to dwell there with listening ears and watchful eyes to discern what God wants to communicate to us. Here is a chance for us, as it was for Jesus, to refine our sense of self and our sense of mission and to take a definitive stance against the fears and temptations that have been threatening us.
Canlis notes that throughout the Bible, the number forty refers to a span of days or years marked by deprivation and suffering (flooding, Israel’s wandering, Moses’s fasting, Elijah’s hiding)—but this deprivation and suffering leads to new life. So too the forty-week gestation period for humans is accompanied by confusion and distress culminating in agony, which pregnant moms endure because of the promise this time holds. Thinking of Lent as a period of pregnancy and labor may give us the motivation to press on in the hard work of supporting growth, knowing that the joyous results will eclipse the preceding discomfort and pain.
Canlis’s three tips for doing Lent are full of wisdom:
- Be in community.
- Make room for something.
- Pay attention.
I know of some Christians who brand Lent as unbiblical or at least unhelpful because they misunderstand the motivation behind acts of self-abnegation. Giving things up, Canlis clarifies, is not a holiness stunt, and it’s not about punishing ourselves; it’s about refining and strengthening our desires, opening up space for self-discovery and cleansing: “Lent is not about depriving yourself but about waking up—waking up to the sin in your life, waking up to the subtle ways you might have idolatry in your life, waking up to the things that are distracting you from that one thing,” that one flower that wants to bloom. She encourages us to ask ourselves, What is my biggest distraction? What am I afraid to give up for forty days?