“I have no problem giving up alcohol for the 40 days of Lent” my friend told me. “But if I try to say no to a glass of wine other times of the year, it seems impossible. I don’t know why that is.” This conversation with my friend got me to thinking about Lent’s power. Why is it that 40 days marked off on a calendar 1,700 years ago would impact our behavior today? Do we Protestants have anything to gain from the traditionally Catholic practice of Lent?
Lent was originally a season of spiritual preparation for becoming Christian. In the second century of Christianity it may have lasted only two or three days. But by 325 it had stretched to 40 days and was practiced by those preparing to become baptized. The word means “lengthen” and coincides with the lengthening of days as spring arrives.
Giving up chocolate or taking on a practice of prayer during these 40 days is not just about self-improvement. It is about making a lengthier space inside or ourselves for the divine presence of God to dwell. Sure you could set aside any 40 days of the year for this, make up your own Lent. But it wouldn’t be the same.
Lent is a communal practice. We know that these days of prayer and fasting are practiced by Christians around the world. And so we enter a shared reality with millions of brothers and sisters in the faith. To cheat is not to cheat only our own rule but to turn away from the whole group. And Lent focuses on a purpose. It is not just to get skinny or healthy or smarter. It is to name our emptiness in relation to the one who is pure wholeness. Frederick Buechner says that the purpose of Lent is to express our need for Lent. That is to say that we need God. We need purpose and meaning to our lives. And there is this one who gave his whole life that we might know that meaning and purpose. So the chocolate and the wine; the fasting and the prayer are aimed at a purpose. They matter, because our relationship with God matters.
Lent allows us to name that we live inside of an unspeakable mystery: the love of God. Here are 40 days for us to ask how we will live in response to that unconditional love.
Grace and peace,