When I was growing up I didn't hear or know much about Lent. My friends may have followed it or had little ash marks on their forehead from Ash Wednesday Mass, but if they did I didn't notice or it didn't make much of an impression. The church communities I was a part of had special services for Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter, but that was the extent of their adherence to any sort of formal church calendar. We were non-denominational evangelicals after all, and any allusions to high church had no place in our gym-renting, chorus-singing Sundays.
Before you let the hair start rising on the back of your neck, let me say I am thankful for the places of worship that shaped me as a young child and into my early adult years. They were rife with issues, as any place that is made of men will be, but they pointed me in the right direction and more often than not gave me a desire for and tools to use in learning to love and follow Jesus. They did not however, observe Lent.
As I've grown older and seen the struggle and the joys that come with walking daily as a follower of Jesus, I've started to wonder about and appreciate some of those centuries-old traditions that much of the Church today still utilizes. There's a whole discussion here about a myriad of topics like form and function, tradition and authority, and all the differences in theology between all the different denominations and divisions of the Church (which I believe have importance, but certainly not in this short little space, which as you know is sometimes not that short). I merely want to talk about how (in spite of my wonderful, conservative, tradition-dumping past) I think there is something to my make-up, and perhaps to everyone else's as well, that desires and needs a bit of bit of the ole orthodoxy.
Lent is really just a simple season of preparation. I don't know what kind of human beings we think we are when we imagine we can run around with our heads cut off, caring about everything else in our lives like work and friends, cooking and shopping, crisis handling and community-planning, reading and internet surfing, iphone and ipod playing, tv watching and toddler chasing, and everything else that fills the minutes of our precious days, and then somehow have the presence of mind to fully celebrate the most important festivals of our Christian faith. I don't know about you, but year after year I feel like I come to Dec. 24th feeling like I was busy enjoying all the beautiful traditions of ambiance-and-memory-creating, but am ill-prepared to enter into the fullness of joy I could be experiencing in celebrating the Birth of our Savior. There is something within the makeup of our minds and bodies that begs for and needs preparation.
The centuries old traditions of both the Advent and Lent seasons are just such preparations. Their aim is to get us thinking every day about the celebration that is coming, so that as we prepare our minds, our hearts, even our homes and physical surroundings for this special event, we will be at full capacity to appreciate and delight in all the Joy and Truth those special days call us to remember. "Remember." I remember a class I had in college on the major prophets of the Old Testament. It was a wonderful course and one phrase still comes to me often today, "the call to remember..." It's a problem that has plagued man since the beginning. We forget. We forget what God has done, who we are, what we have done, what in the world we're supposed to be doing, to put in the baking powder... (some more serious than others of course-- but I think baking powder is pretty serious, actually).
I love that God gave the nation of Israel a year stocked full of festivals just to help them out with this! These festivals were sometimes somber, but always pointed to a joy-full reality and were for the purpose of bringing them back to his Goodness. To me, it seems no different today. We forget so much, and the seasons of reflection leading up to and including the holidays where we celebrate Christ's birth and resurrection can be a beautiful means of remembering the most important truths of our lives.
A few short facts about Lent:
- It appears from later writings of Tertullian and others that the Lenten season was being observed as early as the 2nd century.
- Beginning with Ash Wednesday, Lent consists of the 44 days prior to Easter. Technically, it is 40 days of fasting, minus the 4 Sundays of those weeks because Sunday is always a day to celebrate the resurrection (I love that!)
- It is a time of personal reflection and confession, always with the intention of seeing one's need for salvation and the glorious, loving, forgiving and merciful provision of that in Jesus' death on the cross. It is serious in nature, but for the purpose of being celebratory.
I heard the best teaching I've ever listened to on the Lord's Supper from my father-in-law awhile ago. Specifically, because he talked about how it is not supposed to be a somber, serious, face-down-turned occasion, but one of rejoicing and thanksgiving for God's love in saving us from our sin. And that is just what our repentance and confession should always turn us toward. It SHOULD, but I am no robot. This progression of repentance to rejoicing does not happen to me if I just show up one Sunday in my pretty Easter dress after having hidden colorful eggs for an hour in the backyard. I need time to think, to mull, to be made aware, to be shown, to undo the mess that is my brain and heart, to be quiet, to prepare, to talk and to pray. It doesn't make Easter or Christmas or any other day perfect, but I hope it makes it less of a "ritual" and "thing that we do" and more of a way of life.
The challenge to live and thinks this way gets really practical when you have kids in the house. Recently, I read a little excerpt from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters where Screwtape tells Wormwood to convince the parents that things like kneeling before bedtiime for prayers with their children and saying memorized prayers is all form and tradition... nonsense really. "At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls." It really has got me thinking about the way we pray (or don't) with our kids at night. Throwing out the rituals because they can seem stuffy and not "authentic" is fine, but then perhaps we are throwing away other things I hadn't thought of or realized were important too? Thoughts for another post I guess, the point merely being that it has all got me thinking how we do some of these important "traditions" with our kids.
The result of all this thinking... we decided to begin Lent as a family with a simple Dinner Picnic in the Living Room. It was great fun. All we needed with our little homemade pizzas was a sheet and some candles...and the kids were beaming. "It's like we're having a celebration!" the 5 year old announced with light in his eyes. And that's exactly what I wanted them to feel; that this is exciting, anticipatory, something to enjoy even in it's moments of solemnity.
We ate our pizza, then listened to a shortened version of the readings for the day from the Lectionary (simply an organized set of purposeful Scripture reading for each day, and right now specifically for the Lent season). We talked a little, as far as interest would allow about what this season was for and what it would mean. And then we talked football and basketball jerseys, and who had to clear the plates.
This morning, as we ate breakfast, my eldest looked at me with his clear blue eyes and motioned something with his hands (the pretend sign language he likes to speak in sometimes), then translated saying "mom, I said 'your heart is from God.'" It was simple, and yet I found myself thinking about that phrase again and again throughout the day. He really encouraged me, that little one did. As much as I agonize over what damage I may or may not be doing to them with all these imperfect attempts at leading them down the path of life, I thought that if just a few simple truths would plant themselves deeply in his little heart as simply as he stated that one this morning, then that would be enough for me.
If you're interested in a set of daily Scripture readings in preparation for Easter, here are a couple resources: