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What's so special about Lent?

March 03, 2014

GROWING IN GRACE
BEN GOSDEN

Wednesday marks another observance of Ash Wednesday and begins the season of the church year known as Lent – 40 days of denying ourselves fun things like chocolate and gossiping. It’s a bit of a drag, but it’s a predictable drag.

We’ll begin, ready for the test of endurance. We’ll hear the story of Jesus, alone in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan, and we’ll say to ourselves, “If Jesus can resist temptation for 40 days on an empty stomach, surely I can forego a cup of coffee here and there.” But by the time Easter arrives we’re counting down the days until we can again indulge in whatever enjoyable item or practice we’ve gone without for what then seems more like a year than a mere 40 days.

Lent comes and goes from our lives with little, if any, evidence that it ever came at all.

Lent is fun to dabble in. We feel superior to our non-Christian friends who think denying dessert in the name of faith for 40 days isn’t worth the hassle. But the truth is, we secretly agree with them, and that’s why on Easter Sunday we find ourselves, year after year, eating extra dessert and another piece of chocolate, drinking an extra cup of coffee, and calling our nosiest friends to hear the juicy gossip we’ve missed.

What’s so special about Lent anyway? Why should we even bother ourselves with a season of self-denial, especially if very little has changed by Easter Sunday?

The historical root of observing Lent is complicated. We know the practice of observing Lent began in the early church. The meaning, practice, and length of the season, however, shifted through the generations.

Irenaeus of Lyons wrote of a season of self-denial that lasted a few days in the second century. The Council of Nicea (325 CE) discussed a season of fasting observed by the church that lasted 40 days. It’s unclear whether this practice was just for converts preparing for baptism on Easter Sunday or if it was for the church as a whole. Needless to say it soon became a part of the entire church’s annual movement through the seasons of the church year. By the sixth century, Gregory the Great established Ash Wednesday as the beginning of the Lenten season in order to secure the 40-day time span for the season (i.e. Ash Wednesday is exactly 40 days before Easter if you don’t count the Sundays).

As United Methodists, we’ve seen a revival of this observance during the past 50 or 60 years. Ash Wednesday is observed by more and more congregations and is a very meaningful reminder of our mortality and need for God’s transforming love.

But the fact that the season of Lent has an interesting history doesn’t necessarily make it special. So what is the meaning(s) behind the observance of the season?

For starters, just as Lent was a season that prepared early converts for baptism, we are offered the chance to spend a season remembering our baptism and growing more and more aware of the ways in which we need to grow more and more into the likeness of Christ. Lent is not merely a season where we watch and admire the journey Jesus makes to the cross. It’s not a season where we simply remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. Lent is a season that demands we move from the place of onlooker or admirer to the place where we share in Jesus’ journey for ourselves. Lent is the annual remembrance of what it means to share in Jesus’ death so that we might share in his resurrection.

So when you opt to give something up for Lent, why don’t you add something in its place that helps you grow in your faith? Below are a few ideas of ways you can observe this Lenten season in meaningful and (hopefully) transformative ways:

  • If you choose to fast from a particular meal during the week, use that time to pray or read scripture.
  • If you choose to give up gossiping, set aside time each day to write someone a quick note so that they know how much they are loved.
  • If you choose to give up coffee, set aside the money you would spend at the grocery store or Starbucks and find a local mission to support.
  • Set aside your normal devotional materials and find a book that will help you dig a little deeper in a particular area; maybe read a book on prayer or Sabbath.
  • If don’t already, start a prayer journal and list people by name to pray for. And don’t just pray from a distance – call, visit, or email them to check on them. Tell them how they are in your prayers.
  • Find a regular time during your day to stop, meditate, and focus on God. Set aside 15 minutes each day to stop everything and be aware of how much God loves you for who you are and not just for all of the work you’re able to accomplish.
  • Get a book of poetry or find some time to spend outside in solitude. Learn to be aware of and appreciate the beauty of God all around you.

Thomas Merton reminds us that growing in holiness is essentially growing more and more human. God became flesh and lived the human experience. And as we grow in our humanness, we become more and more aware of those around us who are hurting, who are in need, and who need to know the love of God that knows no boundaries. So we become more holy as we become more human because we learn how to be embraced by and share God’s love with others.

Lent is the perfect training season for such a journey toward holiness. So I hope you will spend the next 40 days aware of your own mortality and God’s redemptive grace in your life. I hope you’ll find moments and set aside time to be aware of God’s presence in your life. And I hope you’ll truly commit yourself to live a holy Lent.

The Rev. Ben Gosden is an associate pastor at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon. He can be reached at bgosden@mulberrymethodist.org

 

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