The calendar is racing by as winter turns to spring. The change of season is all around us, as days grow longer, hills grow greener, and white blossoms burst forth around the city. The seasons are also changing in the church, as the Feasts of Christmas and Epiphany give way to a time of fasting in Lent.
The season of Lent began in the ancient church as a three-day preparation for those about to be baptized on Easter Sunday. These “catechumen,” who sometimes studied for as much as two years, would fast and pray prior to joining the Christian community during the Easter Vigil. Over time, Lent expanded to become 40 days of fasting and prayer for all followers of Jesus. A time to reflect and examine our spiritual lives in preparation for the Easter celebration. In Scripture, the number 40 symbolizes a complete amount of time needed. Lent became associated with the 40 days that Jesus himself spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry.
A popular question this time of year, both inside and outside the church, is “What are you giving up for Lent?” The idea of a Lenten fast is embedded in our culture, and perhaps even in our souls. We intuitively know that a season of reflection and cleansing is needed for the restoration of our spiritual lives at least once a year. In Lent we give up those indulgences of the flesh, and seek to embrace a healthier, holier mode of being.
Lent calls us to “repent,” which literally means to turn around and go in the other direction.
We endeavor to turn away from the appetites of the flesh and the mind-numbing technology/media of the world and turn toward a different quality of life — life in the Spirit.
When we find ourselves in the quiet of the wilderness, like Jesus, we draw near to God and he draws near to us. We have a fresh experience God.
Instead of asking “What are you giving up?” a better question is “Why are we giving up stuff for Lent?” What happens as a result?
When we give up feeding the flesh with burgers and fries, caffeine and alcohol, or even chocolate (heaven forbid!) our physical bodies gain health and vitality. Fasting is actually good for your body, it starts a natural cleansing process of the cells and results in more energy overall.
The money we dissipate on our cravings then becomes available for pursuits that are more edifying, or for charitable giving to help the poor and needy.
When we stop the saturating of our minds with TV and social media, our thoughts clear and our brainwave patterns return to a more natural calm. We may even begin to sleep through the night.
No longer anesthetized by the constant barrage of sex, violence and politics, we can cultivate a natural, spiritual awareness, and free our souls to experience God. Time opens up and we become available to engage in a real relationship with him.
At its heart, Lent is a time to turn toward God and experience him anew. God is constantly at work in the world around us, interacting in our lives. He invites us moment by moment to join with him and in his compassion for humanity. We are so stressed out in attempts to accomplish our own agenda we often fail to heed, or even hear the invitation. We are at work in our world, and we ask God to join in our agenda. We like to bring him in the close the deal.
Experiencing God in Lent reverses the process. We look for the ways in which God is actively at work in his world around us, and then join with him in his agenda.
The process flows from invitation, to response, and encounter. God is at work, inviting us to participate. We respond and encounter him. We experience the presence of God afresh. In this experience we come to know him more deeply, and we come to understand his compassion for the world. A transformation takes place within us: angst is replaced with peace; wounds with healing; darkness and despair with light and hope.
Lent reminds us we are all longing for God deep within our hearts. St. Augustine rightly said, “Our hearts will not rest until they rest in God.”
The seasons are changing. This year when someone asks, “What are you giving up for Lent?” consider the better question “Why?” The answer comes as we draw near to God and he draws near to us.
I invite you to join us in Experiencing God in Lent — a five-week series designed to grow our awareness of God and how we encounter him. We’ll gather on Thursday evenings at 6 p.m. and share a simple meal of soup and bread, then study, learn and share together the marvelous ways we are experiencing God in our lives. The series is free, child care is provided, and all are welcome. Register online at Ascensionanglican.com.
May God bless you as you turn toward him in the season ahead.
Father Jack Estes is the rector of Ascension Anglican Church.