From my column last Sunday…
This is the first Sunday in Lent— one of the seasons in the church calendar. It actually began on Wednesday, so we're a few days in as of now. As we continue into Lent, it may be helpful to consider together what our focus should be on during this season.
Lent is a season of prayer and preparation, specifically in anticipation of Holy Week and Easter. Everyone loves the jubilation of Easter! And many churches also delight in Palm Sunday and other Holy Week observations (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday). Celebrating Christ’s victory over sin and death is worthy and freeing. Lent consists of the 40 weekdays leading up to Easter, beginning on Ash Wednesday— known as such because of the reminder that, because of our sin, we return to dust and ashes, just as we came from them. It does not include the Sundays during those weeks, because Sunday is considered to be a weekly celebration of the resurrection (a “little Easter” in that sense).
The goal of Lent is to heighten and highlight the goodness and wonder of Easter by spending time in preparation for it. Therefore, while Easter is a season of feasting in celebration and of rejoicing in that which Christ has accomplished in us, Lent is a season for fasting, for reflection, for humility.
Historically, Christians have observed Lent in a variety of ways— penitential prayer, fasting, almsgiving (gifts to the needy)— all sharing similar themes, such as the reflection of our collective need beyond ourselves, self-examination, a reconsideration of priorities, and the grieving of our sins and sinfulness. Our hearts should be turned to the humility that our spiritual need demands. Our prayers should focus on ourselves and our spiritual poverty. Our souls should reject the self-righteousness and spiritual arrogance that we so quickly assume and turn from our pharisaical ways to repentance.
The number 40 has many connections to biblical events, but the most significant one for Lent is the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness in preparation for His earthly ministry. Our Lord passed those 40 days in fasting and prayer; thus our observation of Lent should be prayerful and often given to fasting. The nature of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was the beginning of His public service to others, so frequently Lent includes a sense of service and self-sacrifice as well. Many people will endure a partial fast throughout the season of Lent as such an act of self-sacrifice. Often our appetites will drive us into action, affecting us in powerful ways; when we fast in any way, it is an act of submission of desire, where the servant to appetite becomes the master over it.
The liturgical color that is commonly used for Lent is purple. It is a color that has long been associated with penitence and fasting. Because the dyes that are required to make purple used to be quite expensive, it historically was a color that was reserved for royalty— fitting, given the themes of Jesus’ Kingship so often associated with parts of Lent (especially Palm Sunday, which is the last Sunday in the season).
Lent has deep roots in the church, with references to its observation coming as early as the Apostles: in a collection of apostolic writings written after the Bible, it reads, “the fast of Lent is to be observed by you as containing a memorial of our Lord’s mode of life and legislation” (The Constitutions of the Apostles, V.III). From the historical records of the church, it is clear that the regular and wide-spread observation of Lent was in place by the 4th Century A.D.
Many protestants are confused about Lent, and whether they should observe or participate in it. Although today Lent is usually connected more with Anglican, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist practices, we should not be quick to dismiss or reject it; many churches are “recovering” some of the long-standing practices of the people of Christ for worship and for the practice of their faith.
There are two particular ways that our congregation will be actively observing Lent in our corporate life: first, we will share in a day of fasting, which the Session has called for next week (March 3). If you are able, I would urge you to consider strongly whether you might participate in our time of corporate fasting. Second, during our Confession of Sin each Sunday during the season of Lent, we will offer confessions for specific and particular sins (such as today's, for cynicism, and next Sunday's, regarding the misuse of the body).
Some may wonder if it is appropriate to confess particular sins in this way, both because of the particularity and because they may not feel that they struggle with those sins. To the first, I would point out that our own confession of faith, the Westminster Confession, says, "it is every man's duty to endeavor to repent of his particular sins, particularly" (WCF XV.5). In other words, where we have and know of particular sins, our regular and ordinary prayers of confession should include those in particular ways. To the second, I might mention this: part of the reason why we share in a corporate confession of sin (rather than simply having a silent time for private confession only) is that we might achieve greater solidarity with the Body of Christ, even in our confession. Therefore, insofar as these particular sins are struggles of some— perhaps within our congregation, and certainly within the universal church— then we should not shrink back from confessing them with and for our brothers and sisters, even if we do not personally struggle with them.
Lent offers a valuable and needed piece of our spiritual well-being. I would urge that you consider whether some personal, ongoing observation of Lent is needed in your life this year.