I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent… (p 265, Book of Common Prayer)
Next Wednesday, the priests presiding at our Ash Wednesday services will say these words as they have been said for centuries in the liturgical branches of the Christian Church. My hope this year is that you will hear these words and take them to heart as an invitation to genuine spiritual renewal.
In popular culture, we talk about what we are giving up for Lent. In our tradition, Lent is described as a time of self-denial, and it is; but self-denial is not the end point. As a favorite podcaster said this week, “Lent is about more than fish and diets.” We may choose to eat fish on Fridays instead of meat (a long-practiced Roman Catholic tradition), or choose days to fast in other ways. But if we think the point is simply to make our body suffer as if the suffering is what God desires for us, or if we think, “Wow, if I fast every Friday during Lent maybe I’ll shed that 10 pounds I need to lose,” then we’ve kind of missed the point.
Lent comes from the Latin word for spring. Lent is the spiritual equivalent of spring cleaning in our yard. We get out there and clear away dead leaves and branches from last year’s growth so the sunlight and rain may coax fragile green sprouts to grow up strong from the dark earth. We apply fertilizer to intensify the growth and foster the strength of our plants and shrubs, and we add mulch to keep the weeds down so nutrients aren’t diverted away from their intended recipients. These good gardening practices remove the things that block the good sunlight, rain, and nutrients from getting where they need to go to stimulate growth.
Whatever we “do” to observe a holy Lent, the goal is the richer, fuller life that comes from a closer and more interactive life with the God who is revealed to us in Jesus. After all, what did Jesus say his purpose was? He said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly (to the full)” (John 10:10).
There was a time in my life when I believed that what God wanted to see from me in Lent was proof that I was disciplined enough to dedicate more time and attention to my spiritual life; but all this proved was that I was missing the point. My practice was focused on me trying to “will” myself to be more disciplined when the gracious invitation of Lent is simply to clear away a bit more time and space to open my mind and heart to listen for, to seek, and to know the One who has already joined me right here where I am, who is always and everywhere as close as my breath.
Maybe you are aware, as I am, that there are addictive forces in our culture and in our lives that, like God, also are right here among us calling for our attention at every moment. When we give them an inch of our attention, they take ten miles and leave us spent: Too much drink and too much food can do that. Too much Facebook or Instagram can do that. Too much shopping for the perfect “look” or the perfect car can do that. Too much binge-watching tv can do that. Too much indulgence in righteous indignation at our political opponents can do that. Too much nursing of old grudges can do that.
Christ was born among us to shine the light of a just and loving God among us, to help us see that another kind of life is possible, a life full of tenderness, love, and joy for us and for the entire world. All we need to do is practice: Practice putting away some of the mindless practices of our lives that numb us or divert precious energy into empty pursuits (this is what the traditional words of self-denial and repentance look like); and instead practice turning our attention to the One who is near as our breath, and whose whole hope for us is abundance of life.
There’s a little article below in the eNews that offers a few ideas – a few things you and your household might “do” to observe a holy Lent, but they aren’t meant to be a “to do list.” The Adult Spiritual Formation class is an exploration of spiritual practices of all kinds that have helped Jesus-followers for centuries in this process. But you don’t need to run a marathon in Lent if you’ve never run a 5K. Just start with a ten minute walk. Choose to put away something that exerts addictive influence on your life, and choose to spend part of the time, money, and energy you would normally give to (fill in the blank ____) and give it to spiritual reading, to prayer, to serving others in need.
Whatever you do on your Lenten “walk,” let it be just a little intensification of what you do from day to day throughout the year to feed your life with God. A little spring cleanup in our messy internal gardens can lead to stronger, healthier growth that bears good fruit in due season.
This comes with Love,