By T.R. Robertson
Some ignore it. Some condemn it. But others have found ways to redeem this 40-day observance with values both biblical and missional.
I didn’t grow up with Lent as part of my life. My church, as well as most other congregations in the Restoration Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, didn’t observe Lent at all. It was considered a nonbiblical invention of the Catholic Church.
My first exposure to Lent came when I was a safety patrol guard in the sixth grade at Lee Elementary School. My assigned post was at the intersection where Sacred Heart Catholic School sat on the opposite corner. I frequently would stop traffic not only for my own schoolmates but for the Catholic kids in their uniforms.
One Wednesday in February the Sacred Heart kids all had smudges on their foreheads. I asked one of the kids what was up, and he looked at me like I was stupid.
“It’s Ash Wednesday, dummy.” When I still looked confused, he added, “You know, the first day of Lent,” which didn’t clear it up at all.
I asked my safety patrol partner if he knew what Lent was, and his answer summed up the attitude I adopted for several years: “Lent is just one of those weird things Catholics do.”
For most of my life, when people have asked what I’m giving up for Lent, my response has been, “I’m giving up Lent for Lent.” And then I’d tell them that Lent isn’t biblical and feel pretty good about myself for being right.
I’ve come to understand, though, that there’s more to glorifying God than just being right. As representatives of Jesus, we should be eager to redeem the flawed things of the world and turn them into opportunities for glorifying God and fulfilling his mission.
And that includes Lent.
Redeeming Lent doesn’t mean we have to embrace everything about it. But it would do us good to learn more about its history and practice so we understand both its failings and its possibilities.
Not only is it not a Bible thing, Lent is also not a Bible name. It comes from the word for “spring” (the season) in Germanic languages (Lenz in German, lente in Dutch).
The Latin term for Lent is Quadragesima, meaning fortieth, in reference to its traditional 40-day duration (commemorating Jesus’ 40-day fast at the beginning of his ministry). Even that 40-day observance is confusing, though, because there are actually 46 days from the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, to its conclusion at sunrise on Easter. This is because there’s a break from fasting on each of the six Sundays during Lent.
For many modern people, attitudes about Lent have become colored by the increasing popularity of carnival celebrations like Mardi Gras, which culminate on Fat Tuesday. It was originally intended as a simple feast before the start of the long Lenten fast. But over the centuries, it developed into an excuse for an orgy of gluttony, drunkenness, and other excesses.
The willful depravity of these pre-Lenten celebrations has served to cheapen whatever spiritual benefit was intended from the observance of Lent. Many who give themselves over fully to the celebration of Mardi Gras shrink from demonstrating a similar enthusiasm about Lenten fasting. Instead, they commit to little more than a token denial of some favorite food or activity.
According to Twitter, the most common things given up in 2014 were chocolate, Twitter, school, alcohol, and swearing.
Given the lack of biblical precedent and the checkered history of excess and superficiality, it’s not surprising that many Restoration-minded churches haven’t shown much interest in Lent. We should consider, though, what benefits we miss by not taking advantage of the opportunities it provides.
The season of Lent is a perfect time to teach the people in our congregations about the spiritual practices that have historically been at the core of Lent: fasting and alms-giving. Teaching or preaching about the historical development and abuses of these disciplines, combined with exposition of the biblical truths about fasting and generosity, can help Christians understand how to incorporate them into their daily lives, not just during a man-made season.
I’ve been involved with more than one church body that organized a group fast during the weeks leading to Resurrection Sunday. Information about the logistics of a healthy fast were provided, along with details of alternative approaches to fasting (full fast, Daniel fast, and others). With participation optional, the group fast nurtures sacrificial hearts without the emphasis on ritual.
Lenten traditions have always combined the sacrifice of “giving up” with the sacrifice of “giving away.” Combining the group fast with a special benevolence fund-raising effort provides an opportunity for the people of the church to make a personal connection between the twin faces of sacrifice.
Stewardship Services, a United Kingdom organization that provides financial services to religious organizations, has sponsored a Lenten program called 40acts:
“For four years we’ve encouraged individuals to take a daily challenge: 40 nudges in a generous direction, alongside 40 blogs to read and ponder. In 2014 over 46,000 joined us, creating a wave of over 1.8 million acts of generosity in more than 180 countries worldwide.”
Their website (www.40acts.org.uk) lists 40 different plans for acts of generosity, with detailed practical suggestions for each idea. The ideas range from the financial (“Create a generosity jar: Save a little every day for the purpose of generosity”) to the active (“Go Guerilla: Find a way to meet someone’s need without telling them”).
Lent is also a season perfectly suited for mobilizing the church to seek missional opportunities.
Many in our churches are like I was: they’ve spent their lives thinking only in negative terms about Lent. A sermon series would go a long way toward equipping people to use those Lent-related conversations to talk in a positive way about the reality of the resurrection and the value of true spiritual disciplines.
Some ideas for redeeming the missional possibilities of Lent can be found by looking at what some Lent-practicing churches are doing to revive and refresh their traditions.
Vineyard North, a church in Wake Forest, North Carolina, observed Lent in 2014 by “fasting from church.” Mike Raburn, the leader of that congregation, explains what they’re doing:
Each Sunday after Ash Wednesday until Easter, we are giving up our normal 10:00 a.m. Sunday service and devoting that time to serving our town. Sound crazy? Yeah, well maybe. But we figure the best time to serve non-church people is while all the church people are in church. So far we’re making arrangements to spend some quality time at an assisted living facility right down the street from us, to tutor kids who need help with math, science, grammar, etc., and to do household chores for our neighbors living close to the church. We’re also already planning to make these sustained, ongoing things, not just a one-time or short-term flash in the pan. (from mikeraburn.com)
Whether or not you choose to “give up church,” the season is a great time to mobilize the congregation for ministry outside the walls of the church building during the weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday.
Celebrate the resurrection by spending time with people in nursing homes and hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.
Encourage your small groups to work together to sponsor outdoor spring-cleaning days in the neighborhoods where they live.
Instead of inviting the community to attend a traditional Easter party at the church building, take the party to them. Organize parties in the neighborhoods of the church members. A neighborhood egg hunt and other kid-focused activities can draw in the families and provide an opportunity to make friends and missional connections.
There’s no biblical precedent for Lent. It’s become associated with the worst sort of excesses. So why shouldn’t we be satisfied with condemning it or ignoring it?
Perhaps because we’re in the redeeming business.
Churches and their preachers have become adept at turning cultural events into opportunities. So why not begin seeing Lent less as an event that “those other people do” and more as an opportunity to sharpen our own spiritual disciplines and draw the world’s attention to Jesus?
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.