Canon J. John: How important is Lent to Christians?
Canon J. John
The church’s calendar is marked by short festivals that are celebrated with joy, yet Lent is a period – a ‘season’ – of the forty days before Easter which is very much in a minor key. Lent is never celebrated but only ‘kept’ and is not so much marked by what we do but what we don’t do: it’s the season of giving things up. Exactly what you give up and how seriously you treat Lent varies enormously between denominations. Some keep it with great solemnity whilst other churches are much less concerned with Lent. Indeed one of the many bizarre things in church history is that a major turning point occurred in the Reformation in 1522 when Huldrych Zwingli publicly defended sausage eating during Lent!
Even among Christians who ‘keep’ Lent, there is no agreement on how it is to be kept. Many people try to give up something: chocolate, Facebook, alcohol, television or, I suppose, sausages. Even some people outside Christianity take Lent seriously: there are many who, while having no religious beliefs, feel that it’s good to give up something for forty days. For them Lent becomes a second opportunity to have a go at failed New Year’s resolutions or a ‘Spring detox’.
But what is Lent all about? One word widely used by those who observe Lent is ‘preparation’. In fact, you could argue that Lent is about three preparations.
First, Lent is a preparation for Easter. Easter, with its message of Christ destroying sin and death through his death and resurrection, is the most exciting and triumphant moment in the church’s year. It’s such a big event that it demands a lead-in to prevent us – all too easy in a busy world – stumbling upon it unawares. After all, a sunrise is best appreciated if you arrive beforehand in the darkness, and the best preparation for a feast is an empty stomach. Lent provides us with forty days of build-up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday in which we can (and should) prayerfully ponder our need to be saved by God. Lent reminds us of the universal problem to which only Easter’s message of the death and resurrection of Jesus can provide the answer.
Secondly, Lent is a preparation for Existence. We live in an age that knows little of restraint. We overeat, overdrink, overspend and generally overindulge. It is almost considered a right that if we want something, we should have it now. Unfortunately, this lack of restraint leads to all sorts of problems, and psychologists point out that the ability to wait for something we want rather than seize it immediately – what they call ‘deferred gratification’ – is an extraordinarily positive attitude linked to academic success as well as physical and psychological health. Restraint is very biblical. Paul writes, ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives’ (Titus 2:11,12 niv). Lent gives us the opportunity to practise resisting harmful and hurtful desires. Strange as it may seem, to fight and win a forty-day-long Lenten battle over chocolate or coffee may help us win a war over more important matters of our thoughts and actions.
Finally, Lent is a preparation for Eternity. If we take Lent seriously, then these forty days can seem to be a long and often wearying season where we never get our own way. Here, for a time, we find pleasures sidelined and joys postponed. But Lent is limited and the shadows of the season are destroyed with the joyful triumphant dawn of Easter Day. Here there is a splendid and encouraging parallel with our lives. For many of us, life seems to run in what we might call ‘Lent mode’: hopes are unfulfilled, desires are frustrated and joys fall short of expectations. Yet as Lent is not the end of the story, neither is life for those who follow Jesus. As the celebration of Easter overtakes the solemnity of Lent so, one day, the joys of eternity will overtake the troubles of this life. For the Christian, there is a wonderful and certain hope that however deep a shadow or sadness has fallen over our lives, it will ultimately be lifted and replaced by an indestructible and unending joy. For those who love Christ, life’s long Lent will end, one day, in an eternal Easter in which death and sin are destroyed for ever. One day our fasting will give way to eternal feasting.
Whether or not you keep Lent (starting on Wednesday 6th March this year) and in what way you keep it is your choice. But to keep Lent, thoughtfully and prayerfully, is to come into a rich and lasting inheritance. Be blessed this Lent and bless others!
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