Lent. The word itself sounds downright unsavory. Who in the world would want something in their life that reminds them of something like toe jam or junior high boys who forget that a belly button is an orifice to be cleaned?
Lent might seem gross, but it’s really an important season in the Christian Year. Every year, in the doldrums of late winter when other folks are off either escaping to Florida or scrambling to find light like it’s the last french-fry in the bottom of the bag (o where o where did I put that box that shines the crazy bright light…?), Christians around the world are entering a time of spiritual athleticism in abstinence, giving, and prayer. They call it “Lent.”
The word “Lent” is simply an old English word for “Spring” – not spring training (get baseball and Florida out of your mind… by the way, have you seen my light box?). Lent for the Christian and for the church is a 40-day, six-week season each year leading up to Easter and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Just as Jesus spent 40 days in the desert to prepare himself for his coming ministry, so his followers have the privilege and opportunity to identify with him. It’s a special time to connect in a unique and meaningful way with God – but without the chocolate.
For many people, Lent is associated with giving up something for the six-week season. But Lent, and the entire Christian life, is made up of much more than giving up things. We let go of something so that we can pick up something else. We really can do that. After all, we aren’t like those stupid monkeys who stick their hand in a trap to grab a banana and can’t get it out unless they drop it.
Nope, we are more evolved. We can learn to exchange one practice for another. We can lay aside some old way of living and take on a new way of life. We can stop dreaming about all the great stuff we could sell to American Pickers (maybe Frank would find my dang light box) and start thinking about giving away all the stuff in our closets and rooms that somebody else could use… wait, I still have a t-shirt from 1994 that I haven’t worn since the remake of Planet of the Apes!?
There are three Christian practices which make observing the season of Lent worth the effort. They relate to each other. Each practice alone is a powerful antidote to our narcissistic cravings for attention and bananas. Yet, together they are an atomic bomb of grace exploding on a world in need of Christ’s light and deliverance (oh, man, did I lend my light box to Jesus?).
I’m not talking about giving up vegetables for fast food. Fasting simply means not eating. I haven’t lost you yet, have I? (of course not, your grimy hand is still holding on to that banana). Food is necessary, but it can so easily shape our lives to the point that we let chips, soda, and breakfast burritos call the shots on our time and desires, not to mention our bathroom habits. Setting aside food for one day a week or letting go of a certain precious item (bye-bye brownies) is designed to do something more than just point to our growling empty guts: We let the hunger pangs for food remind us of a much greater hunger to know and love Jesus, the Bread of Life.
Less food in your belly and fewer trips to Aldi for those Ferrero Rocher dark chocolates provides the chance to give the money you would have spent on yourself for someone in need of real food. Stop eating. Start giving. Put down the double stuff Oreo you were going to dip into that chocolate eau claire and think about someone who is hungry, for real. An important dimension to stopping an activity is thinking of another person and doing for them instead of yourself. I see you. Nice try on thinking you’ll bake chocolate chip cookies for a group of the homeless hungry. Like a beach full of baby turtles hatching who never make it to the ocean, you and I know all those cookies will never make it from the wax paper to the cookie tin. Just walk away from the kitchen, my friend.
It takes time to make your way to the bottom of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chunk fudge brownie ice cream. Now that you’ve sent Ben & Jerry packing to the curb, what will you do with the time? Pray. Pray for the people for whom you’re giving your food and money. Pray for the hungry on this earth who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Pray for the great hunger of the world for spiritual sustenance and satisfaction. Pray that you won’t fall into the temptation of turning your remaining kitchen ingredients into some super moist chocolate cake creation.
I’ve got to level with you. Lent isn’t easy. I really wanted to say it was, but it just isn’t. I like my bananas just as much as the next guy. I’ve got enough hoodies in one closet of my place to outfit all the monkeys at the Milwaukee Zoo. Sometimes I secretly tell Little Debbie I wish she were my sister. I have some money in accounts and investments, and it makes me feel sort of secure and somewhat like a big shot. The thought of letting go of anything feels like inviting someone to give me a wax peel-off of my chest hair just for kicks – it just seems weird.
I’ve been observing Lent for years and I wish I could tell you it gets easier. It doesn’t. It’s still hard. But I keep coming back to it every year, even looking forward to it a little more each time – not because I’m a masochist who enjoys wax peels, but because I have come to embrace the value of stripping away anything that’s an obstacle to me knowing Jesus.
When Easter arrives every Spring I often wonder why I thought I needed that banana, that brownie, or that light box. Turns out that Jesus, the Light of the World, provided so much of an experience in discovering him that my petty attempts at holding-on were just that – really, really, petty. Lent is something like a detox for the soul. It helps me to feel love again and to function like a civil human being. At the beginning of Lent, I just feel hungry. Well, I still feel hungry weeks later, too, but I get used to the empty stomach. Like Jesus rising to new life from an empty tomb my emptiness turns to joy, not frustration.
I have an admission to make (fyi: I didn’t give up honesty for Lent): I can’t stand Christians who tell me Lent is optional; that I’m only making an ash of myself on the first Wednesday of Lent because it’s a Catholic thing; and, that seasonal rituals are unspiritual.
Last I checked (neither did I give up sarcasm for Lent) walking in the way of Jesus was a good thing; Catholics are our spiritual ancestors (whether you like it, or not); and, most people just finished ritualistically observing Valentine’s Day, like they do every year with the liturgical giving and receiving of flowers.
Lent might sound unsavory; it may be hard, especially in taking a hard look at yourself. But you see Jesus, even without a light box. And that’s a treasure Little Debbie can’t touch.