Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What is Lent anyway?

I was in a Christian bookstore the other day, purchasing some oil to mix with the ashes for Ash Wednesday. As I struck up a conversation with the clerk, and explained my purpose, she confessed that she had no clue what Lent was, since her church never practiced that. I kind of take it for granted, having been raised as a very traditional Methodist, that people understand our various traditions, and it's always good for me to be reminded not everyone has had the same experiences.

So what is Lent anyway? To most folks, the practice begins and ends with giving up something for 40 days that you feel like you either like too much or need to have out of your life. Many people who do practice Lent do so out of habit as much as anything else, and give up chocolate (the eternal favorite), television, video games, caffeine (ouch), or some other thing out of a sense of obligation. It is interesting, when we look at Lent just as giving up something, how our attitudes sour. It is no surprise that Ash Wednesday is preceded by Fat Tuesday in some cultures (Mardi Gras), with people packing in all their indulgence they are going to miss into one day, before the 40 days of misery begin.

But what is the point of giving all this stuff up anyway? While emptying oneself is a critical component of many of the worlds' religions, in Christianity it takes on a deeper purpose. When we give up one thing, it is to make room for another. When we empty ourselves, it is with the point of filling that space with Christ. Fasting of any form, without something to fill in the gap, is an exercise in utter misery. But when you give up a meal to pray, or to give the money you would have spent to the homeless, or to commit to God that His priorities are more important than even the hunger of the stomach, then your sacrifice has purpose, meaning. When you turn off the TV to make time for prayer, or Scripture study, then it takes on new life. It isn't just's opportunity to find a deeper walk with Christ. Even if what you give up doesn't take any time, it should have a purpose.

So if you give up something for Lent this year, put something in it's place too. Don't just make yourself miserable...take an opportunity to draw closer to Christ instead.

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