The journey of Lent has begun! Yesterday, along with many Christians (not only Roman Catholics!) I received ashes on my forehead. In the parish I serve, at each liturgy of the day I read these words:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.For me these words are among the most powerful in the whole Book of Common Prayer, a resource with many powerful words. It doesn't tell us how we must do Lent but it invites us to go deeper into a community that has deep roots. In so doing we are reminded that while Lent may be personal, it is not meant to make us more individualistic. For me the whole season of Lent is a reminder that the Church was not "thought up" last Tuesday (even if some liturgy is so "thin" that it can feel that way sometimes.) There is depth and richness and wisdom in the communion of saints and we are invited to dive in!
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of moral nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
Lent isn't in the Bible, but the notion of spending time in the desert (forty years, forty days) definitely is. And so it became the custom of the early Christians to observe these days "with great devotion." It was not primarily a time to give up chocolate, but it was a season of fasting. It was a season of Baptismal preparation, which is why among the already-Baptized it is a good time to remember our Baptism and the Covenant that goes with it by trying to more faithfully (with God's help) live into those promises first made on our behalf and later affirmed by us.
I serve among a lot of sinners, but not too many notorious ones. Most of us do most of our sinning, I think, in secret. But I do serve in a time and place when there are many who have drifted away from the community of faith for various reasons. I have yearned for Lent to be a time to welcome back people without shame or judgment, to put the whole congregation in mind of God's embrace and love in this season.
So what is Lent for? The reason we give some things up is to say yes to others. We clear the decks. I think it's a little more than a tithe of a year for "self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." We examine our own faults (not those of our loved ones or our bosses!) not to increase our own sense of shame or to "fix" ourselves, but to give it to God. We ask for healing. We look to see the beam in our own eyes and ask for God's help with that. We turn around and get our bearings again by re-orienting our lives toward God. We may be headed in exactly the wrong direction, or just require some readjusting. We pray, we fast, we look for a bigger world than our own ego needs. We spend more time reading and meditating on the Scriptures.
We won't get it all right, not this Lent or any Lent. But we are invited to make a right beginning, with God's help.