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It’s that time again… but what does Lent really mean?

Lent is the season in the church calendar that calls believers to prepare heart and mind for the embrace of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his Easter victory. Since the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the practice of honoring a 40-day period of fasting and prayer has been a part of the Christian tradition for many believers. That 40-day discipline was initially designed for the new converts to the faith who were preparing to be baptized during the Easter Vigil. The fellowship of believers was invited to share the discipline to support their new brothers and sisters as they prepared to give their lives to Christ. The practices of fasting, prayer, and Bible study were designed to help deepen the faith journey of the believers. The 40 days begin with Ash Wednesday- a day to remember the depth of our sin and our desperate need of the Savior’s grace- and end on the eve of Easter. In Christian tradition, the Sundays of Lent are excluded from the 40-day Lenten discipline because Sunday is always the joyful celebration of the Resurrection.

40 days… The number 40 repeats throughout the story of the people of God. It rained 40 days and 40 nights as Noah’s ark floated on the waters. (Genesis 5) Many of the Judges ruled the tribes of Israel for 40 years- Othniel, Deborah, Barak, and Gideon. Goliath taunted the army of Israel for 40 days until the shepherd boy David stood boldly on the field of battle to fight the giant. (I Samuel 17) Saul, David, and Solomon each reigned 40 years. God required the prophet Ezekiel to lay on his right side for 40 days to mourn the sin of God’s people. (Ezekiel 4) Jonah warned Nineveh of their sin for 40 days. (Jonah 3) Jesus preached for 40 days after the resurrection, until his ascension into heaven. The number 40 often indicates completion in the story of the people of God.

While Lent is not found in the Bible per se, the idea of a 40-day period of preparation is firmly grounded in the Biblical witness. Moses spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai receiving the Commandments from God, carving the covenant onto stone tablets for the people of God. When Moses descended from the mountain, his face was “radiant” from his time in the presence of God. (Exodus 34) The people of God wandered 40 years in the wilderness after their refusal to enter the Promised Land. Those 40 years transformed a fearful people into a people ready to take down the walls of Jericho with a shout. (Joshua 6) Elijah’s 40-day journey to Mt. Horeb was a desperate attempt to flee from Jezebel’s army of murderous priests. He yearned for God to release him from his calling as a prophet. At the end of that journey, Elijah found himself on the mountain as wind, fire, and earthquake shook the foundations, but God was not in any of those grand moments. Instead, God spoke to Elijah in a “still small voice,” renewing the courage of the prophet to return to his work. (I Kings 19) After his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to prepare for his ministry. Those 40 days culminated in a series of tests by the devil, each test a refining fire that revealed who this carpenter’s son really is.

If the great prophets of God and even our Lord found direction and strength in a 40- day period of preparation, perhaps we should consider embracing our own 40-day journey. But what should that journey entail? Years ago, I married into an Irish Catholic family, so Lent has always included ‘no meat on Fridays.’ For 40+ years I have held to that practice out of respect for the family I love, but I have never understood the meaning behind that discipline. So, for the sake of a Tuesday letter, I did some digging. What I found was a rather motley collection of explanations, some sounding more like a Dan Brown thriller or a conspiracy theory. Consider the story that a powerful medieval Pope made a secret pact to prop up the fishing industry that ultimately altered global economics as Catholics around the world eat fish every Friday. Perhaps the church turned to fish during Lent because many of the disciples were fishermen, and we all are called to be ‘fishers of men.’ Perhaps the call to abstain from shedding the blood of an animal reminds us of Christ’s blood shed in sacrifice for us. Thomas Acquinas in the 1200s argued that eating meat was more pleasurable than fish, so our Lenten discipline should sacrifice the “delight” of meat. When my father was stationed on the NATO base in Iceland, I found my way to the USO for the Friday night Fish Fry. I must admit, a filet of flaky white Haddock wrapped in deep fried batter is anything but a sacrifice! While I will continue to observe ‘no meat Fridays’, I must find a more substantive discipline to train my heart to seek the Lord more fully. Perhaps you will join me…

Should we give up something… dessert… social media… single use plastic… alcohol… on line shopping… holding a grudge… road rage… texting while driving… overscheduling… Diet Coke and M&Ms (heaven forbid!)… judging others…? Too often we use Lent as a time to do some house-cleaning of bad habits or to jump-start a diet. But do those efforts bring us closer to the One who gave His life for us? Perhaps this year instead of giving up something, we should do something… write one note a day to encourage another… dedicate a special time each day to pray… read the Gospel of John… read the LVC Lenten devotional… watch The Chosen… take a prayer walk… practice Matthew 25- “whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.” Lent begins tomorrow and I am still considering my options. I would love to hear what discipline you choose to help prepare your heart and mind to welcome the Savior in a deeper way this year.

With you on the journey to the cross and empty tomb,
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