Not a lot of people think very much about Lent. For most, it’s a relatively obscure part of the Christian liturgical calendar. If anything, it’s limited to a time of giving things up: for a few weeks, quit drinking beer, quit eating chocolate, quit wasting time on Facebook.
Some are uncomfortable about putting emphasis onto the Lenten season. My own theological hero, John Calvin, was against its observance. It’s true that in some places Lent is tainted by superstition and legalism and abuse. We should be on guard against falling into such errors.
But I, and increasingly churches in the Reformed tradition, are rediscovering Lent, and are blessed by the observance of the season.
Personally, I love Lent. It shapes a large part of my worship, giving definition and direction to my spiritual journey. I can’t imagine ignoring the six weeks leading up to Easter, nor would I want to miss the blessing that I receive from it.
For the six weeks of Lent, beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding on Maundy Thursday – the day which commemorates the Lord’s Last Supper with his disciples – I am reminded of my own brokenness, and my need for salvation. I am confronted again by the perfection, love, grace and obedience of Christ, and stagger that the Son of God would sacrifice himself for people like me. Through the meditations and the small Lenten sacrifices, I feel better prepared for the celebration of Christ’s victory on Easter Sunday.
Here are three things about Lent that I particularly appreciate:
I love the solemnity of Lent. At the congregation I serve as pastor, Lent begins with a gathering on Ash Wednesday. During that evening service we sing songs of confession. We hear various passages from the Word which reveal our need for the Saviour, which remind us that we are dust and that to dust we shall return. The hope that even in our brokenness there is healing by the grace of God is affirmed. We call out to God in humble prayer. Then, at the end of the service, ashes are presented, which are the remains of the palm branches which God’s people, led by the children, waved in the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. Coming forward, one of the congregants places the ashes on my forehead, and then I do the same for all the other worshipers, each hearing the words said to them: “Repent! Believe, and live, the gospel of Jesus Christ!”
I love the honesty of Lent. The temptation we so often succumb to is that we think of ourselves more highly than we ought. The idols we construct are ourselves, and we frequently fall into the error that says we are the centre of our universe, and that our own glorification should be our highest priority. The observance of Lent corrects this. In our congregation, every service during the season strongly reminds how great our sins and misery are. When we unite our hearts in the liturgical prayer of confession, every person in the worship hall who is able gets down on their knees, demonstrating to the Lord our humility, our regret for our sin and our submission to him.
I love how it focuses our attention on Jesus. As we journey through Lent, the cross is always before us. We don’t proceed alone, but the Spirit reveals to us that Jesus is our companion, and that we are following him on the journey of hope and redemption. This year in our congregation the sermons of Lent are considering the various people Jesus saw from the cross – his enemies, his followers, the crowds, the criminals crucified with him, his Father and himself (inspired in large part by A. G. Sertillanges’ wonderful book What Jesus Saw from the Cross), and seeing ourselves reflected in them, or understanding ourselves in light of them. Also, we are gathering every week at the Lord’s Table, receiving the Sacrament from the divinely-present Christ as we remember and believe, and gaining from it encouragement to continue the trek of faith and service. Our hope, our identity and our joy is found in Jesus Christ.
Not every believer and not every congregation will celebrate Lent like I do or as the congregation I am part of does. But I encourage all to find ways to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s victory and for the opportunities he gives us of a life of ministry, and I pray that we all may grow in our love and devotion to the Lord.