Many Christians in the free-church tradition have deep-seated suspicions of ancient church practices such as Lent. There is a widespread belief that the Reformation dispensed with such traditions for a good reason in the effort to “purify” the church. “We just need to worship in spirit and in truth,” I am told. “God no longer expects nor desires empty sacrifices. Lent is just an empty form.”
Well, yes–to a point. No spiritual practice should be followed merely for tradition’s sake. However, I believe strongly that our spiritual health benefits greatly from a little discipline, such as Lent affords. Self-discipline is a virtue that appears to be in desperately short supply in our contemporary culture, leading to a disequilibrium that is threatening our personal lives and our planet. Yet self-discipline is stressed consistently by Biblical writers, and is in fact one of the traits identifying those who belong to Christ Jesus (Gal 5:22-24).
Jesus, Himself, did not suggest the adoption of such practices as prayer and fasting; rather, He said, “when you pray … and when you fast …” assuming that His followers would follow these ancient spiritual disciplines.
Naturally, we are expected to follow spiritual disciplines all year long, and mature Christians wisely incorporate them into daily life. Many of us, however, find ourselves distracted by the demands of daily life, and despite our best intentions and perennial New Year’s resolutions, are constantly planning on doing something … sometime.
Just as we are recovering from the excesses of our year-end celebrations, Lent arrives to provide us with the perfect opportunity to re-orient ourselves and our spiritual walk. Lent is no 100-yard dash with its own time demands to add to our already densely packed lives. Lent is a leisurely season of six weeks which allows us to progress at our own pace in our preparations towards the high point of the Christian year–Easter.
As we tell our children during the session on “How the Church Tells Time” in the rich children’s worship program we use at the Baptist church I attend, “Easter is so special, it takes us six weeks to get ready for it.” The process of walking slowly and thoughtfully towards this great celebration conveys even to young children something of the magnitude of this redemptive act of God. Six purposeful weeks can give us an edge even over the Easter Bunny!
And therein lies much of the value of Lent–it is not so much a dour list of “don’ts” and “give-ups” as it is a gift of time. Lent is primarily a season, a time to set apart for personal self-examination and reflection, for embarking on time-honored practices that hopefully will become habits because they nurture the soul and bring us closer to the God to whom we often only give lip-service. It is a time to acquaint ourselves with authors (both classical and contemporary) whose writings nourish our spirits. It is a time that can provide a refreshing oasis in the spiritual desert, which is a sad reality for many contemporary Christians.
Left to our own devices and dependent on the strength of our own willpower, many of us falter–and will continue to falter–in our efforts to maintain a consistent devotional life. Over the centuries, the church has wisely offered faithful people an opportunity to restore their devotion by setting a marker in the year–like a symbol to remind the heart of its source of life.
This Lenten season, why not journey with Jesus to Jerusalem toward Gethsamane, Golgotha and the empty tomb–individually or with fellow travellers? There are study guides available (such as the Lenten study from Acacia Resources) to help you grow “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4: 13).
Resources such as those by Renovare assist disciples to develop the disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, reflection, journalling, fasting and service–disciplines that use the head, heart and hand. I would encourage you to make use of this season in a way that best suits your personality and spiritual need.
There is so much more to Lent than giving up chocolate for a few weeks!
Carol Anne Janzen teaches at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.