Lent is a season of the Christian Year where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. Some of you are very familiar with this season we call Lent, but others may wonder why we begin with ashes on our forehead, continue with days of reflection and climax with lots of services before Easter. I came across an article from Upper Room (our UMC global publishing ministry dedicated to supporting the spiritual formation of Christians seeking to know and experience God more fully) which addresses some questions that pop up when we contempt this thing we call LENT. I have edited it just a bit so that the contents are more relevant to us. Enjoy and join me as we journey through a most sacred time.
When is Lent?
It's the forty days before Easter. Lent excludes Sundays because every Sunday is like a little Easter. Basically, it's about one-tenth of a year (like a tithe of time). Ash Wednesday begins Lent and this year it is on March 6th with Easter falling on April 21st.
In earlier times, people used Lent as a time of fasting and repentance. Since they didn't want to be tempted by sweets, meat and other distractions in the house, they cleaned out their cabinets. They used up all the sugar and yeast in sweet breads before the Lent season started, and fixed meals with all the meat available. It was a great feast! Through the years Mardi Gras has evolved (in some places) into a pretty wild party with little to do with preparing for the Lenten season of repentance and simplicity. Too bad, but Christians still know its origin, and hang onto the true Spirit of the season.
Ash Wednesday is the real beginning of Lent.
Ash Wednesday, March 6th, usually begins with a service where we recognize our mortality, repent of our sins, and return to our loving God. We recognize life as a precious gift from God, and return our lives towards Jesus Christ. We may make resolutions and commit to change our lives over the next forty days so that we might be more like Christ. Our Ash Wednesday service will be begin at 7 am and end at 7 pm. That’s right 12 hours of continuous music, reflection and then, for those who wish, the sign of the cross will be placed on a person's forehead with ashes. While the ashes remind us of our mortality and sin, the cross reminds us of Jesus' resurrection (life after death) and forgiveness. It's a powerful, non-verbal way that we can experience God's forgiveness and renewal as we return to Jesus.
In Jewish and Christian history, ashes are a sign of mortality and repentance. Mortality, because when we die, our bodies eventually decompose and we become dust, dirt, ash, whatever. Repentance, because long ago, when people felt remorse for something they did, they would put ashes on their head and wear "sackcloth" (scratchy clothing) to remind them that sin is pretty uncomfortable and leads to a sort of death of the spirit. This was their way of confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.
Where do the ashes come from?
On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem while people waved palms and cheered him on. Less than a week later, Jesus was killed. The palms that were waved in joy became ashes of sorrow. We get ashes for Ash Wednesday by saving the palms from Palm Sunday, burning them, and mixing them with a little oil. It's symbolic.
So what is LENT?
At Jesus' baptism the sky split open, the Spirit of God, which looked like a dove, descended and landed on Jesus, and a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, My Beloved, with whom I am pleased." Afterward, as told in Matthew 4:1-11, Jesus was sent into the wilderness by the Spirit. Where he fasted and prayed for 40 days. During his time there he was tempted by Satan and found clarity and strength to resist temptation. Afterwards, he was ready to begin his ministry. Maybe Jesus needed some time with God to sort through the major changes happening in his life. Maybe he needed to get away from family, friends and the familiar routine in order to see God (and himself) more clearly. Perhaps he wanted some intentional time with God as he searched for direction and answers like you. Like Jesus, we may need to take some serious time to pray and listen for God.
Why "DO" Lent? How do I start?
Are you searching for something more? Tired of running in circles, but not really living life with direction, purpose or passion? It's pretty easy to get caught up in the drama of classes, relationships, family, and work. Our lives are filled with distractions that take us away from living a life with Christ. We try to fill the emptiness inside us with mindless TV, meaningless chatter, stimulants, alcohol, too many activities or other irrelevant stuff. We run away from life and from God.
Lent is a great time to "repent"—to return to God and re-focus our lives to be more in line with Jesus. It's a 40 day trial run in changing your lifestyle and letting God change your heart. You might try one of these practices for Lent:
FASTING: Some people have been known to go without food for days. But that's not the only way to fast. You can fast by cutting out some of the things in your life that distract you from God. Some Christians use the whole 40 days to fast from candy, TV, soft drinks, cigarettes or meat as a way to purify their bodies and lives. You might skip one meal a day and use that time to pray instead. Or you can give up some activity like worry or reality TV to spend time outside enjoying God’s creation. What do you need to let go of or "fast" from in order to focus on God? What clutters your calendar and life? How can you simplify your life in terms of what you eat, wear or do?
SERVICE: Some Christians take something on for Christ. You can collect food for the needy, volunteer once a week to tutor children, or work for reform and justice in your community. You can commit to help a different stranger, co-worker or friend everyday of Lent. Serving others is one way we serve God.
PRAYER: Christians also use Lent as a time of intentional prayer. You can pray while you walk, create music or art as a prayer to God, or savor a time of quiet listening. All can be ways of becoming more in tune with God.
At Spirit of Hope UMC, our Lenten Sermon series is entitled Journey to the Cross and we begin this journey on Ash Wednesday, March 6th, where we prepare our hearts, our minds and our souls for a yearly reminder of the daily call to journey with Jesus. Each Sunday through Lent, we will meet different individuals who encountered Jesus on His journey to the cross.
Along with our sermon series, Journey to the Cross, there will be other ways to celebrate this tradition of Lent. I encourage you to experience Lent with us through:
ASH WEDNESDAY SERVICE, MARCH 6th
LENTEN STUDY-(Tuesday Evenings)
SPECIAL SERVICES DURING HOLY WEEK
May God bless your journey and this time to grow closer to Him,