I worry, sometimes, at the prevailing sense of ease with which so many within the Western church approach the Christian life. True, Jesus promises us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light; but the yoke still exists, and the burden is still carried. True, Jesus calls all to come to Him who are weary and heavy-laden, and He shall give them rest; but the impetus still falls on us to come to Him, and following Him entails taking up a cross. True, Jesus promises us that He has come so that we shall have life, and have it abundantly; yet He also teaches us that we must lay down our life to find it. The Christian life promises us peace, and joy, and life abundant… but this is not a passive life. At the heart of the Christian life is transformation, and that transformation – won by Jesus Christ and worked through the Holy Spirit – also involves our participation.
Tomorrow begins the Christian season of Lent. I find it fitting that the Lenten Season begins in February this year. February is a month marked by the ideals of love and romance, centered around that famous February 14 holiday. Similarly, the goal of Christian transformation is to better love God, to better love our neighbor, and thus to better serve both as agents of transformation in this world. Lent is a period uniquely devoted to this pursuit.
This season of fasting has been observed spanning different timeframes, possibly as far back as the time of the Apostles. Our modern season, however, can be traced back to at least 330 AD where we find mention of it in a letter from Athanasius. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, and spanning forty days (not counting Sundays, which were considered Feast Days), it would then culminate on sunrise Easter Sunday.
This period serves two essential purposes. The first is a process of spiritual renewal as we prepare for remembering and celebrating the death and resurrection of our Lord. Ash Wednesday initiates this as a service of repentance and restoration. Historically, repentance would be marked by penitent individuals donning garments of sack cloth and dusting their heads with ashes. Tomorrow, we remember that practice by marking the forehead with ashes in the symbol of the cross as part of the Ash Wednesday service.
This journey, begun with penitence, would then be carried on into forty days of fasting and reflection. In the ancient church, this fast would be observed by limiting one’s self to a solitary meal per day, and refraining from the eating of any meats besides fish. In our modern expression, this is generally observed by the decision to refrain from one meaningful luxury for the duration of the season. The idea is to surrender something meaningful, thereby connecting in a small way with the suffering of Christ, and additionally helping to refocus on Christ as our center. I encourage all of you this year to find a meaningful way to partake of this ancient practice.
The second purpose was to serve as a period of preparation. Very early in Christian history, “catachumens” would go through a process of study and spiritual formation in preparation for their baptism. For those of you new to the Christian faith, this offers a great entryway to the deeper things of the spiritual life.
At its core, Lent is a season of spiritual renewal and active participation in our Christian formation. This is an opportunity to remind all of us that Christianity is not a passive faith, but an active one. My hope is that this season will jar me enough to identify and deal with the areas of spiritual stagnation in my own life; my prayer is that it will do the same for you.
Image Credit: Vinoth Chandar