We have entered the Lenten Season. Traditionally at this time, the call is for Christians to “give up something for Lent.”
It’s a good tradition, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment. And so I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I might give up. In the past, I’ve given up things like television programs, and tried to use my time more wisely. This year, I’ve thought about my desires to be healthier and considered giving up say, sodas, or those runs through the McDonald’s drive-through.
These types of choices, the giving up sweets or caffeine or fast food, are common choices for the Lenten fast. Moreover, presumably, those Christians who do follow through with such Lenten sacrifices do experience some health benefits. But I began to wonder: laudable though such a goal might be, is physical health or losing weight really the true purpose of Lent?
The early Church developed Lent as a preparation for Good Friday and Easter. It was modeled on Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the wilderness before he was tempted, and was designed to bring us into the experience of Jesus’ suffering. It was a time of mourning for sin, remembrance of our mortality, confession, and purification.
And that’s appropriate. It is a sadly common practice in some churches now to give the impression one must be always happy. Contemporary worship music is too often relentlessly optimistic and upbeat, with any mention of sadness or suffering resolved, at sitcom-like speed, by the end of the chorus. By contrast, the 40 days of Lent allow one truly to mourn for sin and the suffering of the world, and to identify with the suffering of Jesus. By Good Friday, one is truly aware of the misery of sin and the necessity of the cross. And then, a light dawns on a very early Easter morning, and the wildest, most joyous celebration of the Christian year begins. Without the preparation of Lent, there is no way to experience the raucous, visceral joy of Easter.
Lent, therefore, is a purging, a dying before being born again. It is a repentance of the old us and a renewing of the new us. It is a reminder that we are a new creation, and a seeking to live as that new creation, newly born children of Easter, co-heirs with the risen Christ.
Given all of that, a Lenten fast that just helps me lose weight or cut out some minor addiction would not really live up to its purpose. Lent (like all Christian practices) is supposed to help me live more like a new creation and to become more like Christ.
I’ve decided this year, therefore, not merely to give up something for Lent, but to make a thorough-going Lenten change. For these 40 days, my aim is to look for God in every person I encounter. Naturally, this will be outrageously much harder than it sounds, and I expect to fail often. Moreover, this is a serious “sacrifice” for me, in this sense that I will be fighting off my critical and judgmental nature. I tend to hold myself to very high standards, and then, completely unfairly, tend to apply those same standards to others. I am too quick to see people’s flaws. This year, for the 40 days of Lent, at least, I’m going to try a different outlook (and who knows – maybe it will stick). I’m going to try, as I enter into the suffering of Christ, to see people as he did. When people seem to me to be petty or lazy or foolish or selfish or mean I’m going to look past those appearances for the image of God in them, and treat them accordingly. And I hope, when I am exhibiting all of those bad qualities, as I almost always am, that people will look for God in me, too. God’s there, deep within, sometimes almost buried, but for Lent, at least, I’m trying to dig God out.
Let’s all give each other a little grace this season. We’re all fighting our egoic desires for these 40 days. “I invite you, therefore . . . to the observance of a holy Lent . . .”