What does Lent mean to you? Ask people outside of the church and they will probably look blank, but many Christians also only know it as a time to give up chocolate or alcohol. So how did it come about and why is it called Lent?
Christians have always set aside a few days before Easter Sunday to prepare themselves for this celebration, but it was not until 900 years later that an international agreement was made, setting aside 40 days as preparation time to reflect the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before he began his ministry.
In England, springtime was called Lencten for the lengthening of the days and so the period before Easter came to be known as Lent. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday which this year is February 14th, and concludes on Good Friday. Its purpose is to allow us more time to reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection and our commitment to him, and traditionally it includes fasting, prayer and giving to charity.
Fasting is talked about very little these days except for people on strict diets but its purpose is very simple. If we can exercise enough self-control to go without a meal and spend that time reading the Bible or praying, then we are exercising our spiritual muscles and it will be easier to say no to other temptations.
In the church you will notice some changes during Lent. The clergy will wear purple stoles as a sign of penitence, there will be no flowers or banners and in the communion service we will say the Kyrie instead of the Gloria.
Lent begins with the Ash Wednesday service. You may never have attended this service before, but can I encourage you to try it this year? The Palm crosses left over from last year will be burnt and mixed with oil and at the end of the service you will have the opportunity to kneel at the altar rail and have the sign of the cross marked on your forehead with ash. It is a simple action but very moving and gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives and Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and to return home with the mark of the cross on your forehead is a powerful reminder that we are to make Christ visible in our community.
At the end of Lent there is another quiet service on Maundy Thursday which includes the act of foot washing by the clergy if you choose, an act performed by Jesus for his disciples. This then leads us on to Good Friday, the holiest day of the year for Christians when we recall all that Jesus did for us on the cross to bring us into a right relationship with God.
So how are we to make Lent relevant to our lives in the 21st century? The church’s attitude to Lent can be seen as negative, reinforcing the idea that it is a time to give up what you most enjoy in order to find favour with God, and some people use it simply as a spur to go on a diet.
But Lent is not about us. It is an opportunity to get to know God better by asking his Holy Spirit to search our hearts and trying to put right the sins he reveals to us. It is also an opportunity to spend more time in prayer and reading the Bible and devotional books, and this is where the element of self-denial comes in. If, in order to do those things, we need to give up some activity or spend less time watching the TV or online, then that is justifiable self-denial. It’s fine to give up sweets or alcohol but there is little value unless the money is then given to benefit others, otherwise it is an action which makes us feel good.
The real aim should be to DO less and BE more. Jesus asks us to spend more time being still, listening to him and obeying what he says. There are so few opportunities to step back and be still in our hectic world so Lent gives us that opportunity. Centring our thoughts on Jesus rather than ourselves will bring about change naturally and it is not time wasted. We will find ourselves wanting to spend more time in prayer, and giving will not be burdensome. I know many of you are on fixed incomes but all of us have clothes we rarely wear, things in the loft which are gathering dust or toys which are no longer played with. Making the effort to box these up and give them to charity will be a blessing to others and it costs us nothing. Perhaps you could also spend a few hours volunteering or visiting someone who is lonely instead of pursuing your normal leisure activities. Both of these actions can include the children and are a way for the whole family to be involved in Lent.
This year Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day coincide. What a wonderful way to remember that God loved us so much he sent Jesus into the world!