Nearly everyone knows the clichés concerning Lent. We are to “give up” something as a kind of vague penance. Often I have been asked, “What are you giving up for Lent this season?” to which I reply, “I have no idea.”
What one thing in my life do I want to give up in order to further my relationship with Christ? Really, I don’t feel as though giving up one harmful habit or innocent indulgence will help me understand the significance of this specific event in my sacred journey. If I stop eating dessert for 40 days, will I really be able to identify with the true meaning of this spiritual discipline known as Lent? Or is it possible that the season of Lent is about more than just giving up something, and is instead about taking something on?
The purpose of Lent is twofold. The 40 days are a time for a probing consideration of our human condition, including sin and its deadly consequences. They also help foster an intense consideration of the new possibilities offered to us in Christ and their implications for practical living.
The current experience of Lent in many churches begins with Ash Wednesday, which often includes marking ashes on the forehead as a sign of our mortality. The liturgy then moves methodically through five weeks of preparation, climaxing on Palm Sunday. The blessing and procession of palms, the singing of hosannas and the Gospel proclamation of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem all combine to create a brief festal interlude in the discipline of Lent. This same rite also intensifies our focus upon the sufferings and death of our Lord in the days of Holy Week.
The 40-day Lenten period originated in the early centuries after Christ. It was based on the time allotted for converts to make their final, intensive preparation for baptism. It was to be a time of particular devotion and discipline, including prayer and fasting as recommended in various New Testament passages. Jesus’ own preparation for ministry by fasting for 40 days in the desert influenced the idea of self-denial. Through the practice of going without, the individual can know what it is like to be with God in a new, intimate way—to hear his voice, to experience his presence without any earthly distractions.
For each person, a different pattern of devotion and discipline will be appropriate during the Lenten season. But whatever that discipline looks like, it should be intentional and sustained, and should proceed not from a sense of duty or obligation but from a sense of grateful devotion.
A New Approach
In the past, much was made of the idea of giving up something for Lent. At times it became a trivial, if harmless, pursuit—for example, abstaining from chocolate or from going to the movies. Maybe this was even practised with mixed motives—reducing sweets not for spiritual reasons but to shed some of the extra Christmas pounds. Yet this idea of deprivation doesn’t encompass the fuller Lenten discipline—a self-examination that seeks greater conformity to the mind of Christ, but also more effective ministry on behalf of the world!
How then do we fully encompass the Lenten discipline and engage in more effective ministry on behalf of the world? Rather than a season for giving up something, let us consider Lent as a season for taking something on. For instance, you could conduct weekly or bi-weekly visits with someone who is ill or confined to their home. You could add another Scripture passage to your daily devotions, pray while walking through your neighbourhood or increase your tithes and offerings for six weeks. At the heart of the Christian faith is our common participation in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You may be participating in this Lenten discipline more than you know! Growing up in The Salvation Army, I am more than familiar with the concept of self-denial, though I never understood it to the extent I do now. I remember giving something up and putting the extra money in my offering envelope for Sunday school, knowing it would go to missionaries in faraway lands or other people in need.
In recent years, the former Self-Denial Appeal has been renamed Partners in Mission. The same idea of sacrificial giving is present, but now we are linked to specific areas of the Army world, so that the focus is not just what we can offer to them, but what they in turn bring to us.
Lent is a double journey—a journey together (and alone) toward the mystery of God’s redemptive embrace in the death and resurrection of Christ. This Lenten season, don’t just give something up for the sake of losing those 10 extra pounds. Instead, take something on for the betterment of this world.