After the pancakes are eaten on Shrove Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. I am guessing that, not having brought up in Catholic homes, most of our members, your minister included, do not have a strong tradition of observance. Even among those who take Lent very seriously, there is a range of understanding about what this 40-day period before Easter means, and what one should do about it.
This article from Baylor University will bring greater understanding about Lent’s origin; however, it doesn’t help us decide what should be done about it.
Over the years, I have used Lent as an excuse to involve people in a Bible study, playing on the notion that it should be viewed as a period of preparation for Easter. Of course, Bible study should be a year-long endeavour, so for what else might Lent be special? As I ponder this question, I have a hard time finding anything that one should do in Lent that should not be done every day of the year. Perhaps this idea of doing something for Lent, such as giving up chocolate or whatever, is misplaced. Is it any more special than any other time in the church calendar?
Ah, the church calendar! You will be familiar with the changing of liturgical colours of the lectern and communion table drapes and the minister’s stoles. As they change they remind us we have just crossed a border from one season to another. The colours themselves are guides to the attitude to be taken: click here for a bit more information.
I find it helpful to view the liturgical year as a guide to my inner journey. The purpose of Lent can’t be described in isolation from its part in the whole inner journey that begins in Advent, with its emphasis on God’s coming into the world. It is a time to reflect on one’s needs, i.e. where help from God is required. Advent is a time for hope to be born, but hope must be paired with the patience necessary for perseverance in one’s hoping. Advent recognises the fact that, before any growth can occur, it is necessary to acknowledge that something is lacking, and then imagine something better.
Christmas marks the incarnation of God. In the outer world, this incarnation has its locus in Jesus, but the nativity story is also a story of God’s birth in you and me. The twelve days of Christmas are about recognising, nurturing and protecting the emerging God in me.
Epiphany, the season of light, tells the story of seeing the emerging God and bringing knowledge about how God is working in my life. As in Jesus’ life, it is not all plain sailing. God is revealed, goodness is revealed, but enemies emerge.
Lent is a battleground. The human condition exerts its power, and we are faced with the choice between taking the narrow road or the broad way, sacrificing self or protecting self. In practice, Lent is a time of self-examination that exposes where my choices have gone the wrong way, and recommiting to ‘the road less travelled’.
Good Friday is the celebration of my victories on the Lenten battleground, i.e. where I have given myself to ‘the Way’, and Easter symbolises the life that has emerged in these victories. The season of Easter that follows is a time of appropriating the victory, culminating in Pentecost, which reminds me I am not alone; I am part of something much bigger. Then the long season of ordinary time is a working out of how I can make God real in practical ways in the things I do and say every day.
The year ends on Christ the King Sunday, as it brings attention to both the ways in which I have ceded my life to God over the past year and the future expectation that God will take over my whole life; thus, I am pointed to Advent to begin the cycle over again.
As I relate the role of the church year, I am struck by the fact it is not an agenda for my month by month spiritual life; rather it is a cycle that plays out, not over the course of a year, but day by day, week by week. The liturgical year describes the cycle, and helps us to celebrate each stage in turn, but it is really telling a story of the process that goes on constantly. God is always yearning to be incarnated in us and asking us to break down the walls we erect against divine intrusion.