An Introduction and Practical Guide to Engaging In/With Lent
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Part of what it means to be human is to have a body, and one of the consequences of having a body is that time matters to us. We organize our lives into days, seasons, and years. Every culture develops rhythms; we call these calendars. Some people live according to the rhythm of the Hallmark calendar, or of our national calendar of holidays (i.e. Christmas, New Year's, Easter, etc.)
When you’re in school, it’s easy to live by the rhythm of the academic calendar: fall semester, Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, spring semester, spring break, end of school, and finally the glorious days of summer leading back to all the energy and excitement of the new school year. If you’re a farmer, the rhythm of your year is influenced by seasons of planting and harvesting. Or maybe you have a family of active children, and the schedules of school, sports, or the arts seems to fill up every week, month and year.
Regardless of how our schedules are shaped, as Christians, we’ve got skin in this game called time. We believe that, in the beginning, God created not just you and me, but this whole universe, and that it was good. And he didn’t just create the materials of this universe. We believe that God made time. It begins with God, and it pivots around God. Let’s take a look back for a moment.
Israel is God’s people in the Old Testament. Part of what that meant is that God took over Israel’s calendar. Take a look at Exodus 12.1-2:
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you’.”
Notice right away what God has done. He is poised and ready to deliver his people from the strong and merciless hand of the Egyptian king. Just before he does deliver them, he emphasizes to Moses and Aaron that this is a monumental moment in the life of this nation, one that must take center stage and that they must not forget. And so the first thing God is concerned with is what? Their calendar.
God had gotten deeply involved in the history of the people that are now called Israel. He miraculously delivered the entire nation from slavery in Egypt. Next to creation, this was the monumental defining moment of God revealing himself to the world. He declares a number of times in these first 12 chapters that he is doing this so that his glory might be revealed and that he might be made known in all the earth.
Here is what God was saying to Israel: this moment is so important that I want you to shift your whole calendar. Change your year to begin on the anniversary of this epic, life-altering, historically-defining event.
Notice verse 3 as well:
“Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household.”
And the story goes on. Drop down to verse 14:
“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations.”
So, in verses 1-2, God says, "Start your year on the anniversary of this event,” and in verse 3, he begins to lay out a ritual that Israel was to practice every year in order to remember this really important thing. Rhythms matter. If you keep reading there, you’ll see that God gives Israel a whole series of rituals, festivals, feasts, and fasts. Each one is dedicated to specific, powerful, historical actions of God in the world.
By going through the year, participating in these rituals, having these feasts and festivals, and practicing fasting, they are remembering and passing on the story of what God has done. The year itself became a powerful framework within which they taught who God was based on what he had done in the world. What a profound way of telling and rehearsing the story they were a part of--the story of God rescuing this fallen creation. Not only that, but by practicing through the year like this, in a mysterious way they were actually participating in the life of God.
Now, there comes a moment in the life of Israel where God incarnates himself in one person by whom he intends to save all people. Thus unfolds the drama of Jesus Christ. All of those rituals and all of those actions of God in the Old Testament have been pointing to Jesus. All of those festivals and feasts, and all of those mighty deeds of God were directing the gaze so that Jesus could be seen for who he is: the Messiah, the Son of God.
So with Jesus Christ, the Jewish calendar of feasts was fulfilled. God doesn’t require us to keep these feasts and festivals now. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t own our calendar; that doesn’t mean that annual rhythms aren’t important. Care and deliberation about this span of time (the annual calendar) are essential. How we measure and mark a year tells a story and shapes our hearts. That is true for all of us--as we mentioned earlier, there are ways that we are shaped by the rhythms of our year. Christians have wisely learned that the shape of the year cannot be taken for granted. So over the first few centuries of the life of the Church, Christians from a wide variety of cultures didn’t stop living their year in a way that told the story of God’s actions in the world. What they did was adjust the calendar to remember and engage the work of God in Christ. They developed a Christ-centered choreography of the year.
Now we arrive at Lent. What is Lent?
Lent is the 40-day season of the church calendar that begins on Ash Wednesday. The season is meant to draw Christians into a place or posture of reflection, repentance, restraint, meditation, and preparation for Easter. These 40 days are meant to replicate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting and preparing for his earthly ministry. Historically, Christians have spent these 40 days (traditionally not counting Sundays since they mark the resurrection) fasting from food, drink, entertainment, and all sorts of other things while commiting to a deeper level of commitment to God’s word and to prayer.
How can I engage?
Prayer: Find a few minutes three times a day to pray; perhaps at waking, at work (in the middle of the day), and at bedtime. Ora et labora, or “work and pray” is the motto of the Benedictine monks, and that can be a helpful idea for us. Regular, carefully placed prayer is one of the keystone habits of spiritual formation. Prayer not only opens us up to receive good gifts from our heavenly Father, it also opens up our hearts to be changed by the work of the Holy Spirit. You can simply pray through the prayer of our Lord found in Matthew 6. You can also use the prayer that we recite together on Sunday mornings, or learn to recite the Psalms of David as a prayer. Sometimes it is helpful to be more structured than to be spontaneous so our minds can find focus.
Scripture: Almost every Western Christian spends more time on their smart phone than they do in the Scriptures. I wonder what might happen if we gave ourselves more to God’s living word than to the numbing blue light that is our cell phone screen. I think the old song, “The Sound Of Silence,” originally sung by Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon could be quite prophetic for us here in 2020. In short, take some time off as it relates to your screens (cell phones, laptops, Ipads, TVs, etc.) and give that time to God’s word and to prayer. Our hearts need that more than we realize.
Fasting: Simply put, fasting releases us from our reliance on earthly things and reorients us to our need of Jesus. And more than that; in the fast we learn that Jesus is all we need. It is a truly cathartic experience. You can give up things like coffee, alcohol, sugar, some of your sleep, TV, Social Media, etc.--the list is endless here. What I would suggest is that you find something dear to you about which you can say, “I want to know what it is like to lean in on Jesus the way I lean in on (fill in the blank).”
Regardless of your experience with the church calendar in general, and with Lent in particular, there are many ways for you to engage. Our hope is that you would find some ways over these next 45 days to immerse yourself in the story of God as revealed in Jesus in a more intentional way. And as you do, you will be joining countless others of your brothers and sisters in Christ all around the globe doing the very same thing