What Is Lent and Why Can't You Eat Chocolate?
Many Christians in America did not grow up in a church that celebrated church holy days other than Christmas Day and Easter. While there’s nothing in the Bible that says you need to celebrate these special days on the church calendar, many Christians have found it to be of benefit to their spiritual life, much like reading books written by wise Christians (another helpful practice that’s not specifically commanded in Scripture, but also not forbidden).
The word ‘Lent’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘Spring.’ It is the period of 40 days leading up to Easter. In Lent, many Christians give up something in their life that they enjoy, like food for a certain day of the week, sweets, caffeine, or social media, in order to identify, even in a small way, with Jesus’ 40 day desert fast described in Matthew 4. It’s completely voluntary and is intended to help us focus more on our relationship with God, as we feel the desire for those things we’re abstaining from and ask God to fill us with more of a desire for Him.
Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, which falls this year on March 6th. It is so named because many churches have services where they apply ashes to worshipper’s foreheads. We wear those ashes as a reminder to us and to the world that we are mortal, that our days in this life are numbered. As the ashes are imposed on the forehead, the minister often says the words, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
But Lent reminds us that suffering is not pointless, that there must be a death in order to be a resurrection. Joan Chittister writes, “Suffering… is the price we pay to bring life to fullness, both for others and for ourselves… When we refuse to suffer, we refuse to grow. Suffering requires us to stretch our souls to the boundaries of personal growth. It brings to the surface in us both strengths and weaknesses we could never, in any other way, know we have… Lent…is about the holiness that suffering can bring. It is about bringing good where evil has been, about bringing love where hate has been… It is about being willing to suffer for something worth suffering about.”
Our small suffering these next 40 days is meant to teach, but it’s not meant to show off. In Matthew 6, Jesus says ‘don’t disfigure your face’ and ‘don’t pray in the streets so everyone will see you.’ He was clearly discouraging us from any attempt to prove our own righteousness. Our suffering is never meant to try to ‘measure up’ in any way- either in competition with others, or in some idea of indebtedness to the sufferings of Jesus.
I heard a great quote once about movies by an actor named Tom Noonan. He said, "I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." In other words, the great movies don’t make me forget my problems, rather they help me get in touch with real stories and real emotions so that I can better understand my problems and my story.
I think Lent works the same way. We step outside of our daily, distracted lives and we focus intently on the most shocking reality that’s ever happened to this world: God came down to earth as a man, and we tortured and killed Him. But He loved us so much that He forgave us and made us His friends- and went even further and adopted us as His children.
From dust you came and to dust you shall return, but in Jesus you’ll one day be transformed from dust to glory. This is the message of Lent as we await the great day of resurrection from death- Easter Sunday!