Recently, someone asked me to explain what Lent is in the Christian liturgical year. This person grew up with a variety of religious influences and had been exposed to a number of doctrinal explanations of Lent that seemed uncomfortable. When I asked back, “What do you think Lent means?” She responded, “Well, it seems to me that it sends the message, ‘We should all suffer,’ and I really don’t like that message.”
My aim here is to explain what Lent means to me theologically as well as what it is in the liturgical calendar.
Some basic nuts and bolts:
Lent can be found on your church calendar. It differs from lint, which can be found in your dryer. Lent is a 40 day period (excluding the Sundays) prior to Easter. This means it spans over a period of about six weeks. Lent is observed in what are called “high churches” or liturgical churches. There are many Christian churches that don’t really observe the liturgical year and follow a generally more free flowing cycle of holidays and observances for their worship themes.
Since the Council of Nicea in 325, the church calendar sets the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. This places it in the time frame of the Jewish Passover festival. Of course the Western churches (Catholic and Protestants) follow the now commonly used Gregorian calendar for the liturgical year while the Eastern churches (Orthodox churches) continue to use the Julian calendar. This is why some churches will celebrate Easter on different dates. This year, they’re 5 weeks apart because of how the Gregorian and Julian calendars differ.
Back to Lent. It begins with Ash Wednesday. Which is, of course, preceded by “Fat Tuesday” or Mardi Gras, a ‘last celebration’ before the more somber and reflective time of Lent that has taken on a life of its own in many cultures.
Ash Wednesday simply marks the beginning of Lent. It is observed with a service where ashes are placed on the forehead (often in the shape of a cross) with words that remind us the ultimate inescapable reality of our mortality.
The Lenten season then continues until Easter. Lent, as I understand it, is intended to be a time of introspection and preparation for understanding the death and resurrection narrative of Good Friday/Easter. Many people will often “give something up for Lent” such as chocolate, watching television, or some other ‘bad habit’ they wish to leave behind. This is a form of fasting which appears in a wide variety of religious traditions and non-religious traditions.
Fasting is generally observed as a spiritual practice manifested as a physical practice. That is, we purify ourselves through purifying our bodies. We deny ourselves of something not in a means of self-mortification or desire to ‘suffer more’ but as a means to aspire to attain something beyond the ordinary that we’ve been feeding ourselves.
For me, giving up something I don’t need but desire becomes a physical daily reminder that I should be giving attention to spiritual matters that transform me into a better person.
One year, I gave up eating meat for Lent. I went out on Fat Tuesday and had a beloved cheeseburger with a friend who also had decided to give up eating meat for Lent. We celebrated our ‘last cheeseburger in paradise‘ then begin a Lenten journey. For me, it mean rededicating myself to eating better, getting creative and being aware of what I ate everyday, and generally taking better care of myself. I learned a lot about food, health, and the injustice issues of food in American society.
40 days later, I felt better, I’d saved a lot of money in the grocery store, I was making tasty new meals I’d never tried before, my general health had improved…and I really didn’t miss the meat anymore. I’ve been vegetarian for 11 years now.
That Easter was not a celebration of, “Hooray I can have a cheeseburger again!” but rather a celebration of, “I’ve transformed myself into someone who takes better care of myself and lives in a way that is more sustainable.” It had also made me discover and become aware of issues of diet, health, affordable living, and how economic disadvantage can often lead to poor diet and thus, a host of health issues. Lessons that became a part of my ministry and teaching ever after.
So the message of Lent, to me, isn’t that, “We should all suffer” but rather an acknowledgment that, “We all do suffer.” The Buddhist tradition also acknowledges this truth as the first of the four noble truths. And Lent is one of the ways some Christian traditions provide an annual reminder of this reality, a way to fully acknowledge the human experience of suffering, and a way to transform our experiences and lives.
This is the understanding of Lent that leads to people often calling Lent a “journey of the soul.” A 40 day journey of introspection isn’t meant to be a self-mortification of suffering for the sake of suffering, it’s meant to be a transformative process that prepares us to see the transformative nature of the Good Friday/Easter narrative in our lives.