Epic times with an epic God…or, why Lent matters

A special treat for you all for today, the first day of Lent – my friend Practicing Human has written a guest post on the topic. I’ve decided to do Lent this year in the form of giving up coffee (1 Cor 6:12 – “…I will not be mastered by anything”, etc etc) and making a concerted effort to read about 10 chapters of the Bible a day. Would be interested to hear your thoughts/experiences in the comments. Say a great big welcome to my second guest blogger!

Greetings folks! This post represents my first ever guest-post. I’m quite excited that it is about such a fantastic and wonderful topic: Lent.

It can be an odd thing to find Lent wonderful. And so, perhaps it is worth saying a bit of how I discovered Lent and why I’ve kept with it over the years. I didn’t encounter Lent until my freshman year of high school. On one hand, I knew my Catholic friends occasionally talked about giving things, generally chocolate, up for Lent; on the other hand, I was clueless. My journey with Jesus started in a Lutheran community as I played electric bass on the worship team. That first year, my encounter with Lent was that it was a time for more. We gathered for more services, enjoyed more fellowship, and shared more authentically about our life journeys than any other time of year. I still remember the theme of my first Lenten journey: “Can you drink of this cup?” and I still have the clay pot that held the weekly reminder give-away of the core themes that members in our community discussed. I remember going to that same community on Maudy Thursday, watching the youth group perform the Passion Play, and leaving a darkened sanctuary shattered and confused about the 40-ft black drape that now covered the cross at the back of our sanctuary. On Sunday morning, our congregation was unexpectedly quiet as they entered this darkened sanctuary, the strains from the choir filled the air, and at the first proclamation of “He’s Alive! He’s Alive! He’s Alive and I’m forgiven! Heaven’s gates are opened wide! He’s ALIVE!!!!” the curtain fell, the lights came on, and the trumpets blared.

Not a bad recollection if you consider these events happened 14 years ago.

But, it seems so many people who have been in churches that put Lent on the calendar rarely encounter any joy during this time. And they certainly don’t encounter the sort of kid-in-a-candy-story kind of excitement that I generally associate with the Lenten season. What might be the difference?

It is much easier to reflect on these matters from my own experience and allow you to come to your own conclusions. So that’s my plan.

Reason 1 I love Lent:
In many ways, Lent has become my time to push myself spiritually. Lent carries with it a lot of suggestions about how to explore one’s spiritual life. We find the trinity of teachers: prayer, fasting, and service… or if you feel comfortable with less “churchy” language: Lent means getting connected with God, turning down the station that broadcasts your own needs, and tuning into the needs of others. Ironically, one of my more profound experiences with Lent occurred in the Cambridge Vineyard (in Massachusetts, not the university town in the UK). We were too cool to call our journey “Lent” but we called it “The 40 Days of Faith.” As I remember, one of the big drivers of that journey is that we were gearing up to try to buy property in Boston. The BIG and important thing though is that this 40 Days of Faith season invited our congregation to have faith. Moreover, we evidenced our faith in some pretty neat ways. We spent time trying to discern God’s work in our lives, asking Him to reveal to us the question behind the question: What do you want Jesus to do for you? We spent time fasting because the Bible tells us that the persistent junk present in humanity can only be cleared out by prayer and fasting. And we spent time praying for people we knew who didn’t come to our church that they would encounter God’s blessings on their lives. Not a bad way to go when you really think about it. But then we had a 40 Days of Faith Year 2. What were we aiming for this year? When we looked at where we were after doing this for the first year, we realised that we were not in the same place. At all. That made the goal setting that much harder… and that much more expectant.

So Lent offers me a yardstick because for 40 days, I actually try to follow a rule for practising my faith. A rule, for the uninitiated to the terminology, is a guiding framework and a way to measure how you’re doing. Drawing the parallel to New Years Resolutions, it is mucheasier “to get in shape” if you commit to “go to the gym 3 times a week.” Going to the gym 3 times a week is a rule. It works like a rulerand helps you measure progress. And a good Lenten rule is one that puts your focus on God and the people around you rather than yourself.

Reason 2 I love Lent:
But the real joy in Lent is not so much that I make this personal commitment to this growth season in Christ; the real joy in Lent is that myentire community makes commitment to grow towards Christ. Lent actually came into the life of the Church to remind us that being Christians is not a solo sport.

Many Protestants rightly observe that any discussion of Lent involves talking about something that is not in the Bible. But the Bible really only offers a window into the first 70 or so years of Christians. Revelation, the “youngest” book of the Bible, is ostensibly written between AD90 and 96. At this time, the Roman Empire was still doing a rather bang-up job at totally suppressing the Church. It really wasn’t until after the Edict of Milan in AD318 (when Constantine legalised Christianity) that it was even okay to be a Christian. The Church could now finally start shining Her light from a stable lighthouse rather than having to duck-and-cover everywhere She went. She stood tall, and She shone bright. She shone SO brightly during this time that one of Her biggest mouthpieces was nick-named the Golden-mouthed. If you do a web search for “John Chrysotom” and “Paschal homily,” then you will likely figure out why this guy rocked.

So what does this random Church history lesson have to do with Lent? Everything. Lent emerged because people started coming to Jesus in droves. Lent is the original Alpha Course. Lent is the original seeker-sensitive ministry. Lent is the original small group Bible study investigation. Lest you get on the early Church for a bad name for such dynamic and innovative programme, Lent actually comes from the word “Spring” as in the season of the year that buds forth new life. And what the Church was doing with all of these people coming to Christ during the Lenten season was preparing them for baptism at Easter.

But what happened next is not at all surprising: the people who had encountered the power of God so radically during their preparations for their baptism wanted to keep remembering what they had learned. They wanted to stand alongside the others who were preparing for their baptism. They wanted to do Lent as a whole group, a whole community, a whole family preparing to encounter the risen Christ at Easter.

Within the Orthodox Church, we have a huge emphasis on doing Lent together. We even have a whole series of Sundays before Lent to alert us all to the reality that Lent is coming. When you stand in an Orthodox Church and you hear the story of Zacchaeus, Lent is a mere 4 weeks away! The Church shouts, “Lent is coming! Lent is coming! Prepare yourselves for the season of repentance!” Preparations begin! And it is really important that these preparations begin early in the Orthodox Church because the Church observes a common rule of fasting, abstaining from meat, dairy, fish, wine, and olive oil. That list is also super odd, but it comes form the experience of the first Christians to observe Lent so it is rooted around a Mediterranean diet. And that observation brings me to….

Reason 3 I love Lent:
Lent is not so much about what happens externally as much as it is what happens internally. I entered the Orthodox Church fully in 2009, but I’ve been with Her to observe Lent since 2007. When I first encountered the list of what Orthodox Christians are expected to abstain from, I thought “GAH! What is there left to eat?” But fasting is not about the food.

Orthograph by Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts

We can all too easily miss the point of Lent, which is to show us our desperate need for a loving God. Lent is a season to be mindful of our ability to forgive, to be people of peace, to control our urges, to honour our neighbours as ourselves, to seek after the face of God… And if we make an earnest attempt at these goals, then we realise how easily we fall. We realise just how much we can do nothing without God’s help and His mercy. And we come to rejoice in God’s power and might.

Lent has always been before Easter as a way to offer to God our lives, celebrating His absolute victory over death. We enter into Lent to come out just that much more fully human when we proclaim the glad tidings of the Resurrection. And the grace of God transforms our humble offerings of an attempt to steward our stomachs into a mouth full of praise. We hope that we approach the Fast with a spirit that allows us to soften our hearts so that Christ Himself can come and dwell more fully at the very central part of our being.

Thanks so much for reading! And thank you so much Aideen for hosting these thoughts! A blessed Lenten journey to all.