Today, as I write, the spectacular white snowbanks of just a week or two ago have turned to big, grimy remainders. A sure sign that Lent is just around the corner (beginning with Ash Wednesday, March 9).
In A Lent Sourcebook (ed. Baker, Kaehler, Mazar) it says, Lent isn’t tidy. Although the word originally means “lengthen,” referring to longer days of spring’s arrival in the northern hemisphere, Lent reminds us there’s much more to the changing season than a Disney-esque image of flowers, bees and birds. Our windows need washing, our temples need cleansing, the earth itself needs a good bath.
We ourselves are part of this.
Lent begins with a “branding” of sorts, with ashes. It continues for forty days (not including Sundays) before Easter. It was popular by the fourth century, and grew from an earlier, shorter period before Easter which was used to prepare catechumens (converts) for baptism into Christian faith. The tradition emphasizes repentance, prayer, and charity (or “almsgiving”).
Why practice something so somber today? Don’t people need more cheering up in these troubled times? It is so easy to ignore Lent entirely, and focus on Easter’s coming, with its bright clothes, full sanctuaries, and joyful music…
One reason is that, in the long run, it is much more rewarding to be honest about who we are than to accept the culture’s encouragement to think that we are endlessly deserving. Life doesn’t work that way; and living by falsehoods distances us from God.
Another reason is that we are mortal. Again, our culture invites us to obsess about being eternally youthful and able to consume without limits…while faith only reaches depth among those who know that being human means knowing we will die.
If all this sounds depressing, it is redeemed by this: Lent when it is followed can connect us with Jesus, who is the way to life. We remember the stories of his ministering, his parables, and also his struggle with those who couldn’t accept him, and ultimately, his death in which all humanity is implicated. But the final word of this journey is Life!
So, ultimately, Lent is a journey that leads to life, and life in a way that may escape us if we aren’t willing to follow its path.