The following reflection is drawn from what I shared both on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and on the first Sunday in Lent.
Lent is a penitential season. At one time certain individuals performed public acts of penance so that they could rejoin the church community at the Easter celebration. This fell out of practice and was replaced by a general penance of the whole congregation. One of the visible signs of penance was to dress in sackcloth and ashes. We no longer do that, but one of the symbols which has been carried on is using ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday.
Lent is the forty days, not counting Sundays, before Easter. This reminds us of Jesus’ forty days of temptation which we hear about this year from Luke 4:1-13. Jesus’ response to the temptations was faith in God and the confession of faith. The other readings for the first Sunday in Lent (Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 and Romans 10:8-13) continue with these themes. The reading from Deuteronomy has a recital of a confession of faith in the context of instructions for the celebration of the festival of the first fruits. The psalm is a meditation on God’s care for those who trust in the Lord. The Romans passage is the classical statement that justification follows belief and salvation follows confession..
These are concepts, ideas, which are foundational, basic to Christianity.
Lent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. It is a time of penitence. That means we are feeling sorrow and regret for having done wrong. I have no issue with acknowledging that we fall short, need to repent and turn back to God. At times I do struggle with what feels like over-emphasizing some of the penitential aspects of traditions of this season. I suppose that you could call me an “Easter Christian”. I tend to be focussed on our risen Lord and Saviour, celebrating the Good News of Christ.
That is not to say that we can ever forget the cost that was paid for our salvation, Jesus on the cross.
The cross, for some, becomes the focus of the season. In my opinion, that is not right either. The cross is much more the focus of Holy Week, the last week before the celebration of Easter.
Lent is a time when we are called to remember how we do not live up to what God is calling us to be.
The collect prayer for Ash Wednesday in our Book of Alternate Services: Almighty and everlasting God, you despise nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our brokenness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness;
We need to repent and turn back to God.
The service for Ash Wednesday continues with an invitation. An invitation which calls us to live out our faith, saying: I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.
Lent is intended to be a time of self-denial, moderation, fasting, and the forsaking of sinful activities and habits. These are good things to do but we need to be careful of our reasons for what we do and are seen to be doing. It is a good thing to repent of sinful activities. That’s something Christians should do every day, not just during Lent. It is a good thing to clearly identify oneself as Christian, but again this is something which should be done all year round.
We need to not make a show of our fasting, giving something up for Lent, or wearing ashes on our foreheads just so that others see it. This season we are called to step up our spiritual discipline, but we also need to be careful that it does not become spiritual pride. Jesus repeatedly criticizes the religious leaders of his day. He tells his followers: “Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Rituals, liturgies and religious practices can help us in our walk of faith, but in and of themselves they cannot make one’s heart right with God.
Many Christians live as though the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ never happened nor has any affect on their lives. Our lives become absorbed in the day-to-day experiences of life. We focus on our clothing, the colour of our houses, the size of our bank account, the year and make of our automobile, the prestige in which others hold us, and the symbols of our own power. We too easily forget our Maker and Redeemer, replacing God with things and ambition. At times I find myself falling into that trap. Lent is the season that does something about this situation. It calls us back to God, back to basics, back to the spiritual realities of life. It calls on us to put to death the sin and the indifference we have in our hearts toward God and our fellow persons. And it beckons us to enter once again into the joy of the Lord—the joy of a new life born out of a death to the old life. It calls us to remember the fundamental change of life required of those who would die with Jesus and be raised to a new life in him.
The opening prayer for the Ash Wednesday service includes the words: “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts.” This goes back to the core of our faith. We are to come to Christ as our Lord and Saviour. We are to be born again, made a new creation in him. We are to be transformed from glory into glory. Unfortunately we all fall short and need to repent. This pattern of repentance and conversion flows through and is expressed again and again throughout the season of Lent.
Each one of us is called into a new and fresh experience with the healing reality of Jesus Christ.
We are called to have faith. The emphasis is not faith as a mere belief system—an objective set of propositions to which we give intellectual assent, or something we give lip service to—but faith as an embodiment, a life lived out in true piety characterized by prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. What lies at the root of each of these three practices of spirituality is not a mere rote, impersonal ritual but a truly engaging, demanding, and committed relationship with Christ.
It is important that we see our Lenten disciplines; fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, in this perspective of faith. Jesus repeatedly chastises the Pharisees for improper motivation in their practices. They do it to “be seen by men” (Mt 6:5). They do not practice their piety in faith. The true evangelical reason we are called upon to fast, pray, and give alms is not so others will praise us but to establish, maintain, repair, and transform our relationship with God. When the Lenten discipline is not seen in terms of works nor as a means of attaining God’s favour but as part of a relationship with God, neighbour, and self, the discipline itself moves us to a deeper spirituality.
As we prepare to celebrate Easter and the Good News of Christ, let us strive to live out our faith, remembering our need to repent and turn back to God, giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. We need to follow the example of Christ, holding fast to and confessing our faith. Let us do this to strengthen and deepen our relationship with God, so that we can more fully love him with our whole being and love our neighbours as ourselves.