In a little while you will see me no more, and then, after a little while, you will see me. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.
- John 16:16, 20
Ash Wednesday recently ushered in the 40-day period (minus Sundays) known as Lent. Devoutly observed by many, misunderstood or ignored by many more, Lent is the Christian counterpart to the Jewish High Holy days and the Muslim observance of Ram-adan. All three provide time for the faithful to pray, take inventory of their spiritual lives, and draw closer to their God.
Incidentally, the Biblical phrase 40-days often signifies a long or intense period of time, not necessarily a literal 40 days.
Since my home church was more informal than liturgical, I had very little understanding of what is called The Church Year. There were no color-coded cloths on our altars, no vestments on the pastor and, though I did have a facetious friend once who announced she was giving up sword swallowing and parachute-jumping for the next 40 days, Lent was something Catholics observed, not us.
But when my small-town denominational life gave way to the ecumenical experience of the military, I began learning why Catholics and many Protestants use different methods from mine to practice their faith. Once I understood them, some of those other methods, including the observance of Lent, became part of my faith, too.
I began with the usual denial of some favorite food, but halted what bordered on hypocrisy when I realized I had a secret agenda to lose weight, which had nothing to do with improving my relationship with God. Then, for a few years I went beyond chocolate deprivation to skipping lunch those 40 days, not to lose weight I convinced myself, but to treat each hunger pang as a call to prayer for those for whom hunger is the norm.
But in later years my Lenten practice evolved into taking on something, rather than finding something to give up. I became more habitual in spiritual things - prayer and devotional reading - and in what the bumper stickers call random acts of kindness. Though I wasnt 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 carefully laid schedule and financial plans.
No matter what form my Lenten observance takes, however, according to the Bible my first church was totally correct in not observing the period at all. Not only is Lent not mentioned, its not necessary. No matter how much we sacrifice, how many random kindnesses we perform, we could never do enough by ourselves to earn our salvation.
Thats why Jesus came to earth in the first place, to do what we couldnt do alone. Jesus also admonished the religious leaders of His day for performing their religious practices in public. In todays setting, advertising our Lenten sacrifices could become one of those outward displays of which He so strongly disapproved.
But quietly and intentionally observed, Lent can be extremely beneficial for Christians of every worship tradition. Food denial does increase our concern for those who never have enough to eat, more time in prayer and study improves our spiritual health, and kindness has a rippling effect on everyone to whom it is shown.
Lent also serves another purpose: pausing between two celebrations to make them both more meaningful. Christmas, the birth of Jesus who is the subject of our Lenten observance, has just passed, and Easter, the day we celebrate his resurrection, is not far away. If we were to sing our carols, open our gifts, and move immediately to Easter, most of the significance of Jesus life and death would be lost.
Lent, though unnecessary, is a good thing for still another reason. Knowing that Jesus, who for the joy that was set before him - resurrection and reunion with his father - endured the cross, despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2), helps us endure the painful, long or intense periods in our lives, too.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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