Lent begins tomorrow. And I think Lent is important.
I’m rarely moved by the argument “we’ve always done it this way” especially because “always” in American Christianity rarely dates back more than a couple of decades. But there are a few things Christians have been doing for over a thousand years, and I’m positive we would have stopped if it wasn’t somehow helpful. Lent is one of these very old traditions and I hope you’ll decide to find out just how helpful it can be.
The idea is to use the 40 days before Easter to prepare yourself to celebrate Easter more fully. A guy walked out of his of his own tomb – it takes some preparation to live like that’s true. People have done this mostly by fasting. Some have given up foods like meat or dairy or sugar (or all 3 if you’re Eastern Orthodox). And some fast particular parts of the worship service – communion, or singing “hallelujah.” We do this hoping that our small sacrifice will focus us on God and put us more in touch with Jesus’ own sacrifice.
In past years, I’ve given up a lot of different things: chocolate, dairy products, recorded music, coke (I mean this in the Texas sense, referring to all carbonated beverages) and meat. What I’ve discovered is that the tougher sacrifices – recorded music and diary have been the two most challenging – were also the most rewarding.
More rewarding still have been the things I added for Lent. The closest I’ve ever been to consistent daily bible reading was during Lent 2004, and that period helped solidify my call to ministry. During one Lent, my wife Hilary and I started our habit of praying together every night and it’s been one of the most rewarding parts of our marriage.
The first night of Lent is Ash Wednesday (tomorrow). Christians all over the world gather for a quiet moment to reflect on life, death, faith and hope. They close the service by smearing ashes on their foreheads – an ancient symbol of death and mourning. It may sound strange or extreme. In the 21st Century, it may sound old fashioned. But I think all of this is probably more necessary now than ever. In a world of excess, it’s probably necessary for us to practice self denial. In a world that worships youth & beauty, it’s probably necessary for us to smear ashes on our heads and consider our mortality. At least every once in a while. At least once a year.
So I encourage you to try it. Find out why we keep doing it. Find out how adding this Ash Wednesday ceremony, or giving up coke for 40 days can draw you closer to your Creator.
Traditions in the church don’t last hundreds of years because people don’t like change. They actually tend to last that long precisely because they’ve helped the church change for the better.
Try it – give something up or add something in. You’ll see what I mean.