Keeping a Holy Lent
by Rev. Dr. Craig R. Higgins
People from different religious backgrounds have very different reactions to the season of Lent. Some grow up in churches where Lent is observed, but with little to no real explanation. Whether observed as a time of strict austerity or merely as a time of forgoing a few simple pleasures, in such cases Lent may seem like an empty, meaningless ritual.
On the other hand, some grow up in church traditions where Lent is not observed at all. These folks may think of Lenten observance as, at best, a hollow custom, or, at worst, quite foreign to authentic Christianity. As a matter of fact, many who grew up in church have the same the question as those who didn’t: “What is Lent, anyway?”
The Meaning of Lent
Lent’s origin is hidden in the early centuries of church history, but we do know that it originated as a time of preparation for Easter. From the church’s earliest days, the resurrection of Christ was celebrated not only each week (on Sunday, the Lord’s Day), but also in a special festival of the resurrection. This festival we call Easter Day, and it is celebrated as the Sunday of Sundays.
Lent, as a season of preparation, is traditionally focused on repentance. Speaking biblically, to repent means to make a change in our attitudes, words, and lifestyles. As 16th century reformer Martin Luther taught, the Christian life in its totality is a life of repentance. Beginning when we first commit our lives to Christ, and continuing throughout our lives, we are more and more turning away from sin and self- centeredness and more and more turning to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Even though a repentant spirit should mark all we do, it is still appropriate that certain times be set aside for a particular focus on repentance. The church has traditionally done this at the Lenten season (and, to a lesser extent, in the pre-Christmas season of Advent).
Lent, therefore, is a time for focusing on the heart, a time for asking questions about our spiritual health:
• What are my characteristic sins, and how can I work and pray for change?
• What idols have captured my imagination so that my love for the living God has grown cold?
• In what ways is my devotion to Christ and his church less than wholehearted?
The Lenten season is the spiritual equivalent of an annual physical exam; it’s a time to take stock of our lives, our hearts.
Keeping Lent, however, is potentially dangerous, precisely because of this focus on the heart. After all, it is much easier to read a book on prayer than to spend time leisurely speaking with our heavenly Father. It is much easier to fast from certain foods than it is to turn from idols of the heart. It is much easier to write a check than to spend time in ministries of mercy. Consequently, Lent is easily trivialized. The point of Lent is not to give up chocolate; it’s to give up sin!
Even with this warning, however, we need to beware of going from one extreme to the other. Yes, it is possible so completely to externalize your Lenten observance that you end up trivializing it. Yet we need to remember that we are not purely spiritual beings. God created humans as physical beings; we are psychosomatic creatures, a “nexus of body and soul.” What we do physically has an effect on us spiritually— and we neglect this principle to our peril.
For example, it is unquestionably true that my attitude in prayer is more important that my posture in prayer. However, sometimes being in a physical posture of humility—kneeling in prayer—helps me get in the right frame of mind. It shouldn’t surprise us in the least that there is a connection between the physical and spiritual; it simply reflects how God created us. That’s why, at the center of Christian worship, God gave us the sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist— simple physical rites involving water, bread, and wine, but rites that communicate to us the most profound of spiritual realities. That’s also why, in the pages of Holy Scripture and throughout the history of the church, we find many physical acts and postures designed to help us worship, to help us pray, to help us in our spiritual growth.
Recognizing this God-created link between the physical and the spiritual, the Lenten season has historically included a physical element, specifically fasting and other acts of self-denial. We’ll deal with these more fully below.
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by Rev. Dr. Craig R. Higgins, the founding and senior pastor of Trinity Church.