The season of Lent

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.

Jesus in the Desert by Macha Chmakoff
Macha Chmakoff (French), Jésus au désert n°2 (Jesus in the Desert 2). Oil on canvas, 65 × 81 cm.

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 idols 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 not by joy but 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:

  1. Be in community.
  2. Make room for something.
  3. 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?

One thought on “The season of Lent

  1. I actually like Lent better than Easter. The big blowout at the end of the fast seems odd to me, after the dark, quiet beauty of Lent. I think because the Big Bash of Easter (and I don’t think anyone does it bigger than the Orthodox) flies in the face of the Gospel accounts, which we’re confronted with at every Sunday matins throughout the year in an 11-week cycle. Apart from the fact that the various accounts are pretty much impossible to reconcile with each other, there’s this feel that it was fairly subtle–that the empty tomb was more confusing to the disciples than anything, that none of them really quite got it or believed it. That there’d be centuries before this got figured out. The feel of Lent goes with the Gospel accounts better to me. A wonderful document to examine is the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete, which is read over the first four nights of Lent (it begins on a Monday for us, due to the details of calculation…). We accuse ourselves of everything, and that feels somehow just right. Even if we’re not “guilty” of all the great sins of history, we’re not that far removed from those who are, and identification with them doesn’t really feel weird or inappropriate.

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