"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
- Psalm 139:23-24
Ash Wednesday, which occurred this week, ushers in the 40-day period (minus Sundays) known to the Christian world as Lent. Devoutly observed by some, misunderstood or ignored by others, Lent is the Christian counterpart to the Jewish High Holy Days and the Muslim observance of Ramadan. All three provide time for the faithful to pray, take inventory of their spiritual lives and draw closer to God.
Because my church was more informal than liturgical, I had no idea what was meant by "The Church Year" with its divisions into such periods as Advent, Pentecost, or Lent. There were no color-coded cloths hanging from our pulpit, no vestments on the pastor and, though I once had a friend who said facetiously that she was giving up sword swallowing and parachute jumping for the next 40 days (she didn't get the point), Lent was something the Catholics and Episcopalians observed, not us.
But when my small-town denominational life gave way to the ecumenical experience of the military chapel, I began learning why Catholics and many Protestants use different methods than I to practice their faith. Once I understood them, some of those methods, including the observance of Lent, became part of my faith, too.
I began with the usual denial of a favorite food - but halted that practice when I realized I had a secret agenda to lose weight, a motive that had little to do with improving my relationship with God. For a few years I went beyond the chocolate deprivation to skipping lunch those 40 days, not to lose weight I convinced myself, but to treat each hunger pang as a signal to pray for those for whom hunger is the norm.
Lately, however, my Lenten experience has evolved into taking on something rather than giving something up, like becoming more habitual in spiritual things: prayer, devotional reading, and what the bumper stickers call, "random acts of kindness." Though I wasn't born with an ample supply of tolerance for the annoyances of life, I try to stretch what I do have to cover cranky clerks, desperado drivers, and the inevitable glitches in my schedule.
No matter what form my Lenten observance takes, however, according to the Bible my first church was correct in not observing the period at all. Not only is Lent not mentioned, it's not necessary. No matter how much we sacrifice, or how many random acts we perform, we cannot do enough by ourselves to earn our salvation. That's why Jesus came to earth, to do what we could not do alone.
Jesus also admonished the spiritual leaders of His day for performing their religious practices in public. In today's setting, announcing our Lenten sacrifices could become one of those outward displays, akin to boasting, of which He so strongly disapproved.
But quietly and intentionally observed, Lent can be extremely beneficial. Self denial increases our concern for those who are always deprived. Spending time in prayer and study about our faith improves our spiritual health, and kindness has a ripple effect on everyone who gives or receives it.
Lent also serves another purpose: pausing between two celebrations to make them both more meaningful. Christmas, with its celebration of Jesus' birth, took place only a short time ago, and Easter, the celebration of His resurrection, is not far away. If we were to sing our carols, open our gifts and move immediately to Easter, much of the significance of Jesus' life and death would be lost.
Lent, though unnecessary, is a good thing. Knowing that resurrection follows crucifixion increases our gratitude for, and identification with, the suffering of our Lord. Also, knowing that Jesus, "who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross" (Hebrews 12:2), helps us endure the sometimes painful 40-day periods in our lives, too.
Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer and author of the book, As Long as the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County's Past. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.