When I was a teenager, many years ago, the ministerial alliance in our small town organized Wednesday early morning devotions and doughnuts for youth during Lent. They were held at the Methodist church across the street.
My father, the Baptist pastor, was one of the organizers, and I liked doughnuts, so I went. Attendance was always spotty, and it was only offered one year, but it had a profound and lasting impact upon me. It was a first experience of the powerful, transforming rhythm of Lent.
This 40-day season, beginning with Ash Wednesday and leading to Easter, has become nearly invisible in Protestant church life, but its biblical roots go deep. The number 40 relates to the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness confronting temptation, a severe and telling preparation for ministry. Following the way of Jesus, Lenten observance tends to involve introspection, self-examination and repentance. It invites withdrawal and testing which can equip a person for faithful living.
The practice of Lent began in the fourth century as a time to prepare believers for Easter Sunday baptism. The whole church was also called to a season of preparation since newly baptized members were to join a living, vital community of faith. The church focused upon its ongoing individual and corporate conversion. It was and is a time to clear the plaque from our spiritual arteries.
Apart from one youthful season of Lenten devotions at the Methodist Church, most of my understanding of Lent came from Catholic friends who lamented which candy bar or soft drink they were giving up. It wasn’t until seminary that I began to recognize the deep wisdom and potential for transformation in Lent. The 40 days remind us that Christian faith is about journey and process rather than destination. Lent provides a pace, encouragement and accountability for the pilgrimage.
Lent challenges us to enter the wilderness, as Jesus did. There is nothing like a desert to guide one deeper in the spiritual life but our culture of mega-affluence, frantic entertainment and endless distraction makes it almost impossible to go there. The church itself reinforces our manic culture when it leaps from the Palm Sunday parade to the Easter Sunday celebration, skipping the hard lessons of Holy Week. But Lent asks us to walk through the dark places so we may reach the light with integrity.
A member of our congregation reflected: “It seems that the Lent and Easter season have been full of personal sorrow and strife making it difficult to celebrate the joy of Easter. But having the more subdued time of reflection and quiet of Lent has helped me to find ways to tend to the woundedness of my own soul and the healing that needs to take place before I can enter fully into the celebration of Easter.”
Another church member described it this way: “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as we step into this liminal time and space. We experience a strengthening through the sacred tradition of wandering in the desert and of being transformed in the process.”
Lent offers a holy antidote to the hyperactive, superabundant lives we lead which trap us on the surface and ultimately deliver spiritual exhaustion. The counter-cultural call of Lent is to come and have new life by emptying yourself. This is how we venture into the mystery of the one who shows us how to find life by losing it.
We often stumble trying to reclaim this rich practice. The flower committee was not pleased to have festive nosegays removed from candelabra the Monday after Palm Sunday because a somber tone was needed for Good Friday. A group considering the discipline of fasting lured participants with the promise of refreshments. Spiritual disciplines can be subverted into self-help programs. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services increase the load on church leaders significantly. An Ash Wednesday service feels strange in a Baptist church.
But regular observance of Lent has helped free us from the tyranny of counting attendance and creating productions. Because the staff cannot do it all, gifted volunteers have come forward. We have learned the meaning of the sufficiency of God’s time in the 40 days. We take part in the salvation story and make it our own. Starting with the odd experience of ashes on our foreheads, we remember what it means to be human, the stuff of “humus,” and wait upon God for a renewing spirit.
Heather Entrekin is senior pastor at Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, Kan.