"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 ushers in the 40-day, pre-Easter time period (minus Sundays) known to the Christian world as Lent. Devoutly observed by some, misunderstood or ignored by others, Lent is the Christian counterpart of 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 condition and draw closer to God.
Because my church was more casual than liturgical, for the first 20 years of my life I had no idea what was meant by "The Church Year." There were no color-coded cloths hanging from our pulpits, no vestments on the pastor and, though I once had a facetious friend who said she was giving up sword-swallowing and parachute-jumping for the next 40 days, Advent, Pentecost, and Lent were things Catholics observed, not us.
But when my small-town church gave way to the ecumenical experience of the military chapel, I began learning why Catholics and even some Protestants use different methods to practice our strikingly similar 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 custom of denying myself some favorite food -- but halted that practice when I realized I had a secret agenda that had nothing to do with improving my relationship with God. I was hoping to lose weight. Then, 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, rather than giving something up my Lenten experience has evolved into taking something on, like spending more time in 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 carefully laid schedule.
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, it's not necessary. No matter how much we sacrifice or how many random acts we perform, we can't do enough by ourselves to earn our salvation.
That's why Jesus came to earth, to do what we couldn't do alone. Jesus also admonished the religious 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 of which he so strongly disapproved.
But quietly and intentionally observed, Lent can be extremely beneficial. Food denial increases our concern for those who are always deprived. Spending time in prayer and study about our faith improves our spiritual health. 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 mean more. Christmas with its celebration of Jesus' birth took place 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. Knowing, also, 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 freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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