Lent began this week in the life of the church. It is a time of preparation and penitence, a time for deep reflection in the depth of winter’s cold. Although it is not a common practice in churches, Lent can still hold powerful inspiration for a vibrant faith.
Lent has fallen by the wayside because many folks brand it as too “ritualistic” for relational congregations seeking to be relevant. Yet, it is one of the most ancient practices of the Christian church, and to say that Lent is irrelevant is like saying my family tree has no influence on who I am as a person.
Truth is, practicing a ritual now and then gets us out of the self-centered, individualistic cult that Christianity has become for far too many communities of faith.
Lent originated in the second century for converts preparing for baptism. It was Irenaus of Lyons, according to author Ted Olsen, who instituted Lent as a weekend of fasting and self-reflection. Converting to Christianity back then was not as easy as walking up the aisle and saying a simple prayer; discernment, catechism, and Lent were a part of the process.
Years later, the Council of Nicea expanded Lent to forty days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Holy Week. Forty represented a sacred number: Rain fell for 40 days while Noah and his family took up residence in an arc. Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years after Exodus, Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness staving off Satan’s temptations.
We adhere to so many bedrock beliefs resulting from that Council of old, including Christ’s deity and the Trinity, so it makes sense to include the Council’s call for church-wide fasting.
What is interesting is that the first Sunday in Lent follows Transfiguration Sunday the week before. The Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36) was the event in which Jesus transfigured in front of Peter and John on a mountaintop and communed with Moses and Elijah. According to Pastor Tom Arthur, who wrote a devotional for Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions (Upper Room books, p. 58-59), Transfiguration is the mountaintop experience in a life of faith, whereas Lent is the valley experience of faith.
I agree with Pastor Arthur that we all face mountaintops and valleys in our spiritual life and that our natural inclination is to want to stay on the mountain.
The mountaintop experience comes when we feel closest to God and receive a clarity of spiritual vision that seems to cut through all the difficulties of life. It can result from an especially moving church service or from a significant event like the birth of a child. Like Peter and John, we want to stay in that place and build altars. We want to milk the emotional high.
We can’t stay on the mountaintop, and some of us try and get back up the mountain by reading new books, buying new Bibles, and even switching churches. Like Moses and Jesus, however, we eventually have to come down and continue the journey of faith. It is by valley that we get to the next mountain.
Lent is that wilderness place that plunges us into temptation, patience, and forbearance. It echoes the feelings you get on Sunday night when you know you have to go back to work the next morning; it feels cold like the winter in which Lent falls. God seems far away, and hope elusive.
Yet, even in Lent, light comes. At my church, we begin the season of Lent by having worship on Ash Wednesday. There, we all get ashes spread on our foreheads as a sign that we are marked with Christ.
Last year, after the service I went shopping and forgot to clean my forehead. The store employee mentioned it to me, and I told her what the ashes meant. The ashes are a sign of mourning in ancient cultures, but they remind us that God has sealed us for eternal life.
Yes, Lent plunges us into winter’s darkness, but brings with it the promise of light at the end of the tunnel. It may be a difficult season, but Easter is just around the corner.