February 28, 2019

Less Is More in Lent

The forty day season between Ash Wednesday and Easter morning (minus the Sundays) known as Lent is something of an enigma for many Presbyterians.  If you grew up Protestant before the late 1960s, Lent was likely not a part of your spiritual upbringing.  In fact, many mid-century Protestants would have probably shunned the season (and other liturgical seasons like it) as being "too Catholic."  It is true: the Protestant reformers of Europe did push back on many of the calendars, observances, and seasons that marked medieval Catholic worship in Europe and later brought to America, concerned as the new Protestants were about liturgical rites taking on a life of their own and overshadowing the preaching and teaching of the New Testament.

However, our English word "Lent" simply means "spring" and as a Christian observance, its roots are much older than the squabbles of the Reformation era.  Lent originally developed as the final season of spiritual preparation for those new followers of Jesus being readied to be baptized on Easter Sunday.  As these preparations usually called for self-examination and repentance, the six week period became known as a time of intense piety and sacrifice.  Some of that spiritual DNA comes down to us in the form of "giving up something for Lent," but in the ancient baptismal preparations, the spirit of that sacrifice was less about "going without something I love" and more about "making more room in my life for prayer, worship, and service."  The point of Lent was not to add to your spiritual suffering, but to take away from your daily burdens — for Jesus' sake.

That last point is instructive for us.  Lent need not be a dark, serious time of feeling more guilt.  Indeed, as a springtime season even the creation all around us welcomes more sun after cooler months.  Rather, let Lent be some weeks during which we offload one or more of life's distracting comforts ... in order to make room in our daily lives for what the Protestant reformers would have called "deeper piety" — personal examination, silent prayer, spiritual reflection, preparation for public worship, acts of mercy among our neighbors, etc.  If eating less chocolate or binging less Netflix or skipping Starbucks in the morning helps you welcome fresh piety ... great!  But remember, the point is not so much additional suffering (especially first world suffering!) for suffering's sake, but rather additional prayerful consciousness for Jesus' sake.  Less of one thing makes room for more of another.  Lent need not be any more complicated than that.

So, no, Lent is not a native experience for many Presbyterians of certain generations.  But since the late 1960s there has been among American Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, a much greater awareness that we could probably stand to learn from one another the various ancient practices of discipleship, of following Jesus.  I for one am grateful for Lent's arrival on our Presbyterian scene in recent decades.  I appreciate its sharper focus, its simplicity, and its call to pay closer attention to how we are remembering our baptisms and following Jesus in our daily lives.

This month, we will follow the ministry of Jesus through the gospel of Luke, as the lectionary gospel readings serve up living examples of his lordship and love.  I'm looking forward to making this Lenten journey with you for the first time.