It would be impossible to write anything for the month of March that did not focus upon the liturgical season of Lent. The cold wintry weather we are now experiencing lends itself to introspection and reflection. For Christians, this season of the year take shape within the context of our Lenten observances–those disciplines which we willingly undertake in order to prepare ourselves for the dramatic events of Holy Week and Easter. As I write this, on the brink of Ash Wednesday, the question that comes to my mind is: what sort of discipline shall I undertake this Lent to help me grow spiritually?
As the prayer book reminds us, the purpose of Lent throughout the centuries has been that spiritual preparation:
[I]t became the custom of the Church to prepare for [Holy Week and Easter] by a season of penitence and fasting… the observance of a holy Lent, by self‑examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self‑denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. (BCP 264-5)
It is unfortunate that the words used above frequently create the impression that Lent is a dreadful time, marked by “giving up” things and enduring various sorts of deprivation. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a commonly-asked question around this time of year. While I recognize that different personalities may embrace different means to show their devotion to God, my response to this question of how to observe Lent has shifted. Now my focus is toward disciplines or deliberate undertakings which I hope will open the eyes of my spirit and help me to grow in my Christian life.
One indication of the presence of sin is a sense of alienation or estrangement from God’s presence. When I feel within myself an emptiness and lack of purpose rather than the connectedness to God and the love for others, then I can be sure that I am somehow off the path which God has set forth for me. A large part of my purpose in observing Lent would then be to seek a means to overcome that feeling of spiritual alienation. The traditional term for active turning away from one’s isolated state and returning to God is penitence.
I recently found this insight echoed in the book which have chosen as a resource during our Lenten series on how to read Scripture. Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, speaks of our human condition in terms of exile, such as the Jews experienced after the destruction of the first Temple and their captivity in Babylon:
“Exile,” with all of its metaphorical resonances, is a rich metaphor for the human condition and how we often experience our lives. We feel much of what ancient Israel felt in exile: grief, anguish, longing, weakness, homelessness.
The solution for exiles is, of course, a journey of return, a way or path through the wilderness.… Both Judaism and Christianity are about a “way.” Indeed, the word repent, so central to the Christian tradition, has its roots in the Jewish story of the exile. To repent does not mean to feel really bad about sins; rather, it means to embark upon a path of return. The journey begins in exile, and the destination is a return to life in the presence of God. (pp. 140-141)
In other words, whatever practices I undertake to follow in the coming weeks should be active, not passive. My Lenten observance should (so to speak) get me on my feet and walking on a path directed towards God. Whatever I may deny myself should be chosen because it is an impediment to that journey, not as some sort of punishment for my sins. Ultimately, we believe that our sins are what draws from God, and it is the grace of God that calls us back into a state of unity. Therefore, the practice keeping a holy Lent is the intention and willingness to do those things which our heart directed us to do in order to return to a place where we once again feel love of God.
Perhaps the deepest call of Lent is not “to give up” so much as “to take up” our own cross and bear it with joyful expectation as we seek to become more faithful and to be one with Christ.