CHURCH CORNER: Lent is for renewal, not artificial sacrifice

What do you know about Lent? No, its not the fuzzy remains of laundry that you clean out of your dryer’s filter nor is it the little scraps of fuzz from a wool sweater or from your shedding cat. That’s lint. Lent is a word that in its original Anglo-Saxon origins denoted the onset of spring and the signs of new life beginning to show through the ground. Since the mid-fourth century Lent has come to mean a time of preparation and prayer prior to Easter and the church’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

Depending on which source you trust most, there are numerous online sites that talk about Lent and all have helpful information, even if slightly different variations on its theme. They all seem to agree that, by and large, the season of Lent corresponds to the 40 days of fasting and temptation that Jesus underwent before beginning his public ministry – a ministry that culminated in his crucifixion and resurrection, the stunning high point of the Christian faith. Almost every modern Christian tradition celebrates Lent in some way. Beginning Ash Wednesday and concluding on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday) Lent has popularly been recognized as a time of giving up worldly pleasures and of sacrifice.

As a young boy growing up in a fairly non-liturgical Presbyterian Church, we never really observed Lent in great detail. I remember hearing my friends talking about the things they were giving up for Lent – eating meat, spending money on candy, watching TV, etc. On Ash Wednesday, they sported a strange smudge of ashes on their foreheads. To me, the connotation was always more negative. Frankly it seemed a little artificial. My friends, for all their sacrifices, never really changed in character. Giving up stuff at Lent always seemed to me to be motivated more out of tradition, guilt or duty. I didn’t see much of the heart’s devotion or spirituality I associated with the holiness of the Easter season.

That became even more of a puzzle to me when I began to realize that the partying and drunkenness of Mardi Gras (ending on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday) seemed like people were just trying to get in their last licks at having a good time before having to be stoic and “spiritual” for 40 days. I guessed that inside, the same temptations, desires and sinfulness were still present in their lives in spite of their sacrifice. I knew that was (and is) true in my life, too.

As a Pastor for the past 35 years, I have begun to understand the need for this season in a different light. Instead of seeing it as merely a season of deprivation and sacrifice, it has become a season for me to seek a closer devotion and identification with Jesus in his journey toward the cross. At Lent, I struggle, not just with what I will give up, but with how I may better walk in the footsteps of Jesus by serving others and using my resources differently.

Originally Lent was set aside by the church to be a time of penance, preparation and almsgiving (or helping those in need). This year I am not going to be a slave to sacrifice, but I do want to make this time count. I want to draw closer to Jesus. And I want to minister to those in need. I challenge you to join me in that journey toward the cross. Give some of your time to help those in need. Use some of your resources to help a hungry child. Offer yourself as a volunteer tutor. Become aware of needs in your community and in the world. Sponsor an orphan or spend some time with a lonely shut-in. There are so many ways to live positively as you follow Jesus in obedience. Remember, he said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will surely find it.” Maybe this Lent will be a true time of renewal in your life and not just a time of artificial sacrifice. God Bless you in your journey toward Easter.

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