I adopted the practice of observing lent as a young adult. Ash Wednesday was a great mystery and I thought I was missing something or my friends with black smudges on their foreheads were involved in something dark. In college, many friends walked to our campus’ Newman Center for Catholic Mass and I often joined them. The formal liturgy intrigued me compared to my non-denominational, hymn-singing roots. This is when I began to discover the meaning of Lent.
Friday fish day and giving something up like chocolate were my young adult Lent rituals. I liked being a part of something larger than myself that culminated on the day we celebrate the most important day of the Christian calendar, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Fast forward many years and I am still finding new gifts in the Lenten season. It has served me well to embrace the different ways Christians approach their faith traditions. We are all part of one body in Christ. Five years ago, I began co-leading a Bible Study at my local tennis club. We are from many different faith backgrounds and we all have a valuable place around the table. Our differences bring depth and our discussion of lent is lively. We talk about giving up or adding something of value to this special season.
One of my friends asked if I kept Lent on Sundays and told me that the 40 days of lent do not include Sundays. She also mentioned that she felt like it was cheating to not include Sundays. I counted the total days of Lent and was surprised to find it lasted 46 days and not 40. This brought me back to the intentional reason we set aside this season to prepare for Easter Sunday.
For many, Lent is about following the example of Jesus who began his public ministry by going into the wilderness and fasting for 40 days. This may be where the 40 days came from. Forty days is a repeated thing in the Bible. During his early ministry days in the wilderness, Jesus communed with God and battled the ruler of the world, using his written word. After conquering his enemy with the spoken word, he did not stay in the wilderness. Jesus came down into the middle of Israel with a clear purpose and resolve to walk the steps that would change the world forever. He was taking back enemy territory by way of the cross.
My journey into the Lenten wilderness this year may seem trite, but change does not always have to be drastic to be effective. I set aside a few luxuries that had become a normal comfort. For those curious, it was wine and sugar. I realize it sounds like a pathetically small sacrifice, but for me it meant something. I love to cook and use wine as part of my culinary life. Leaving my glass empty required a big shift in my favorite time of day, cooking dinner. As a non-dieter, no sugar meant being more thoughtful in my choices and no chocolate, even healthy dark chocolate.
With a small degree of change, but very intentionally, I entered into Ash Wednesday. The first few days I found my heart soft and tears were at the surface in my morning prayers with God. For years my morning rhythm has included worship music, scripture reading, and prayer. Not a lot had changed but giving up something I valued opened a deep spring in my heart.
Each morning, my anticipation grows. It is the mystery of God at work in my spirit. I am being broke open, and his very breath is being put in my lungs. The simple sacrifice is being filled with more of God. My Lenten season has not been birthed during a season of suffering, and yet it has placed a holy desire within. I would not compare this with that of Jesus in the wilderness, but I am reminded of another wilderness journey.
When God freed Israel out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, it took the same amount of time to cross the wilderness as the six weeks of Lent. In the wilderness, God was leading his people to the promised land of Canaan. He provided manna from the sky and water from the rock. He gave them the written law in the Ten Commandments and clear direction in the form of a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke, the physical presence of God.
The wilderness journey ends differently than Jesus’s journey into the wilderness. The nation of Israel extended its forty-something day journey to a 40-year fruitless life sentence. They never left the desert. Instead, the people of God chose the false security of staying with the less-than-perfect familiar. Fear of the unknown and potential dangers prevented them from going forward into the beautiful land of milk and honey. They did not trust God to do for them what he had promised.
I am acutely aware that this season of Lent is my training ground for what lies ahead. The daily manna I am consuming and the fresh spring water will be my nourishment to move forward into the land God is promising me. Battles will be fought and won. The land will be established and cultivated. I will follow my great leader, Jesus, and come out of the wilderness and trust him to guide me into his upward calling. This is the way of the cross.
Lent is a season we go to the wilderness to prepare us for the land God is calling us to inhabit. This is where the invisible God meets our physical life. I look forward to hearing the gifts my fellow Bible study comrades have acquired during their time in the wilderness. Our journeys take different forms, but our common mission is heading to heaven. May we walk with open hearts and open minds during this Lenten season.
“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13,14.