With Ash Wednesday only a week away, it is probably a good idea for faithful Christians to start preparing for Lent. For some, this will be a familiar ritual; for others, it will be entirely new. Many Christians do not celebrate Lent. Or, perhaps they did celebrate in their childhood, but found the season to be a shallow and hypocritical one designated by vows of abstaining from chocolate or television. When celebrated as intended, the forty days of Lent should be the most profound season of penitence and reflection in the Christian year, and I think it is something that all Christians should experience rightly at least once in their lives. Of course, if you do celebrate Lent fully, my guess is that you'll want to continue observing it every year, even if your denomination does not require it.
Before we can begin preparing for Lent, it makes sense to understand exactly what Lent is. Lent is a period of forty days of reflection, penitence, abstinence, and prayer in preparation for the holy celebration of Easter. Most denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church do not count Sundays within these forty days, since on Sundays, we celebrate a mini-Easter each week. As Jesus Himself said, "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast." However, the Eastern Rite (Orthodox) churches do count Sundays within their forty days, so the season runs on a slightly different schedule than in the West. In either case, the season is counted as forty days.
Why forty? Throughout Scripture, we find accounts of forty day periods being used for fasting, preparation, prayer, conversion, and repentance. One of the most profound for Christians is the account of Jesus' forty days of prayer and fasting in the desert. This event immediately followed His baptism in the Jordan and preceded His public ministry--a ministry that culminated in His death and resurrection. During that time, Jesus was tempted by Satan, but He overcame sin completely. Even so, during Lent, we face up to our own temptations and failings; we seek repentance; we fast as Jesus fasted and pray as He prayed, and we seek to unite our sacrifices to His suffering, which has purchased our redemption.
Let us look briefly at the four elements of the Lenten season: reflection, penitence, abstinence, and prayer.
Reflection: We take time daily to reflect on our own sins and to meditate on how we might improve our spiritual lives. Keeping a journal can aid in this process greatly. Take time to consider the sin struggles of your family members and close friends, as well, and pray for them during this season; remember, first, though to consider the beam in your own eye (Matthew 7:4). Take count of your spiritual life. What diciplines and practices have helped you this past year in your walk with Christ? Which ones have hindered you? Is there anything lacking in your pursuit of God? Consider Christ's life and ministry. Take time to reflect on His passion and death. If you are Catholic, I recommend praying the Sorrowful Mysteries during this season, either daily or weekly. Perform the Stations of the Cross at any local parish that offers it; the practice can be especially profound during this season.
Penitence: For Catholics, this will of course include Sacramental Confession. If you haven't been to Confession for years, I encourage you to go! God is offerring you His absolution and freedom from the bondage of your past sins; why reject this merciful offer? If you're afraid of speaking to a priest about what you've done, I encourage you all the more to attend confession. Actually speaking our sins aloud with no excuses is ultimately humbling--and trust me, the priest has heard it all before. I often find this to be the hardest part: humbling myself enough to give an honest confession. After that, the penance always seems lighter than I deserve, and the absolution brings the all-consuming peace of God.
If you do not practice the Sacrament of Reconcilliation in your faith tradition, I encourage you to still observe Lent as a season of penitence. Have you hurt someone this past year? Go make amends to your brother or sister. Do you have an accountability partner who can act as your confessor? If not, make the effort to find such a person during this season. Do you have a sin pattern that keeps cropping up again and again in your life? What active steps could you take to try to break that pattern? Perhaps you have left undone things which you ought to have done? Repent of this, as well, and take steps to be more active in being Christ's hands and feet in this world. Of course, these are all wonderful ideas even if you do receive Sacramental Confession.
Abstinence: How did this become such a dirty word in modern society? It instantly conjures up images of a prude maiden-aunt or some far Eastern ascetic, but abstinence is a wonderful practice that has always been a part of the faithful Christian life...until recently, that is. If you have not practiced the discplines of abstinence or fasting, I encourage you to do so during Lent this year, and witness the work God will do in your life. For Catholics, there are some set requirements for abstinence and fasting: We are required to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and on all Fridays during Lent. We are also required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The fast is defined as one full meal; two smaller meals which do not together add up to the size of the full meal may be taken if necessary to maintain strength. Eating between meals is not permitted on fastdays, but drinking liquids is.
This is a far cry from the old Lenten regulations--and from what our Orthodox brothers and sisters continue to observe in their Great Lent, the name they give to their Lenten fast. Because of this, many faithful Christian will go above and beyond these limitted requirements to find other ways to "die to self" that they might enter more fully into the life of Christ. Abstaining from alcohol is very common, as is extending the abstention from meat to all days during Lent, rather than just Fridays. The idea of abstinence is to deny ourselves those things that our flesh desires, offering the sacrifice to God in prayer; through doing so, God will refine our characters. When we fast or abstain, our hunger or desire for the thing we are denying ourselves brings to the surface all our selfishness, as well as those attitudes that crop up when we suffer. If we are faithful in our fast, God will use it to transform these selfish attitudes and to teach us much about ourselves and about His relationship to us. Denying ourselves things that people in many parts of the world would never be able to have gives us the opportunity to stop taking our wealth for granted and to open our hearts to those who have so much less than we do. A new gratitude is awakened.
Take time over the next week to figure out what would be difficult for you to do without. Sweets? The internet? Could you walk sometimes instead of taking your car everywhere? Could you avoid shopping for anything but necessities? What about abstaining from sarcastic speech? What will help you to die to self this Lenten season? If you're choosing to abstain from certain foods, you might want start cutting back now. Alternately, you could enjoy feasting on those very foods in order to rid your house of them! If you intend to abstain from a habit, you might also want to start cutting back now; not everyone can go cold turkey.
Prayer: Of course, we should pray every day, but Lent is an ideal time to enter even more deeply and purposefully into prayer. Of course, not every season of life is going to permit us unlimitted time and space for meditative prayer, and we have to be honest about this. In her book Graced and Gifted: Biblical Wisdom for the Homemaker’s Heart, Kimberly Hahn says, “You find your path to holiness in your state in life. You do not finish homemaking tasks so that you can get to ‘holy’ activities, but you find spiritual meaning even in manual labor.” We need to keep this in mind. We can offer our daily tasks as prayers to God. We can pray with our young children. We can read Scripture aloud as a family. Get creative, but do find time to meet God in prayer.
If you feel that you really would benefit from a time of secluded prayer, speak with your family about how you can accomplish this. Could your children promise to remain in their rooms for an extra fifteen minutes in the morning so you can take time in prayer? Could your husband watch the children while you attend morning Mass by yourself? Could a friend watch your children so that you could go perform the Stations of the Cross without having to wrestle a squirming toddler? Do you honestly need a day or two away for a private retreat? Again, be creative. God wants to fill your spiritual reservoir to overflowing, and He will help you to find a way to spend the time you need with Him.
Remember how Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)? Well, Lent is a lot like that. The boundaries of the Jewish Sabbath created a framework in which the Jewish people could meet with God. They had to prepare for it; they had to make sacrifices: but only in so doing were they able to fully enter into the rest that God provided for them on this holy day! We Christians need to prepare for Lent; we need to make sacrifices. If we do this with our whole hearts and with our eyes fixed on Christ, "the author and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2), then we will find our lives transformed by our gracious and loving Lord. If we let this season pass by unobserved, we will never know what work He might have done in us. Take this opportunity to enter fully into the blessings of Lent, and see what God has in store for you.