Lent is to Easter what Advent is to Christmas. At Christmas time our anticipation includes telling the stories that lead up to Jesus’ birth and decorating the physical space around us, whereas Lent preparation often includes repentance and a stripping back: a kind of all-of-life un-decorating if you will. Lent is an opportunity to strip back the non-essentials, give up some creature comforts and sacrifice some pleasures – with the purpose of identifying our many competing desires and with the goal of focusing more fully on our hearts’ truest longing; unity with Christ himself. Giving up certain habits or mindsets will expose the things that may be preventing us from experiencing true freedom and wholeness in Christ. Setting aside a particular season gives us the opportunity to ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ as we face our fears, wounds, desires, and sins – all the way to Jesus’ death on a cross and then through to his resurrection after the cross.
And it is a daily invitation to put on Christ as we die to ourselves.
Just like a season of stillness can deepen the meaningfulness of our activity, distance makes the heart grow fonder, and play is more valued after work – so too will the feast and celebration of the resurrection at Easter be amplified after a season of Lenten fasting and acknowledging the death around us. And so with this paradox of feasting and fasting, we prepare to enter the season of Lent. Pancake Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday is the last day of Ordinary Time before Lent. Historically, those who observed Lent were compelled to clear out their cupboards of milk, butter, and eggs before a Lenten fast began on Ash Wednesday. And so, the tradition of Pancakes. The concept and practice of feasting evolved so much that Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) grew into a full-blown carnival and celebration of excess before the fast. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christian still observe Fat Tuesday all over the world – and you can do it in your homes as well.
First thing on Wednesday morning, after the simple or elaborate feasting, the religious folks would head off to church for a simple service where they would be marked with an ash cross on their foreheads as the scripture was pronounced: ‘from dust you have come and to dust you will return.’ Lent is absolutely a time of spiritual formation, but it is equally a reminder of our physical nature and limits and our total dependence on the creator and giver of life Himself. That we were given life and breath, and one day, our decomposing bodies will give life back to the earth around them.
Lent is a wonderful opportunity for Christians to remember that because Jesus went ahead of us, we do not need to fear death.
‘Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death’ – because we will find ourselves in brief or extended seasons in this valley – we do not need to be afraid because the Lord is with us. And furthermore, he has promised us in Ephesians 2 (our selected passage for Lent this year) that we are made alive in Christ himself.
We do not fear death. In fact – death is often the necessary precursor to new life! If maple trees didn’t live through the cold death of winter, we would not get the necessary conditions for a sap run. Without the death of winter, there would be no maple syrup! And what about the incredible life and complex ecological facilitation of a nurse log? A fallen old tree provides support and protection to new seedlings as it decays. Life comes from death. Spring and maple syrup come after the winter!
So how do we enter this season? We look at iT as an opportunity for life and growth through a kind of death.
And we should expect to be surprised by joy: “Our self-sacrifices serve no purpose unless, by laying aside this or that desire, we are able to focus on our heart’s deepest longing: unity with Christ. In him – in his suffering and death, his resurrection and triumph – we find our truest joy.” (Bread and Wine) But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that this joy is costly. Because it can only come after recognizing the horror of our sin that crucified Jesus. During the season of Lent, we cannot separate the abstract idea of death from the reality of our sin. But even in that, God’s grace is greater. And he has sent his son Jesus to go ahead of us. And we know that he has already made a way for us. A way for us to be made alive again.
Friends – if you have never observed the season of Lent before, consider taking the time to think about life and death. Sin, repentance, forgiveness. Your own physical limitations. The many competing desires that may be preventing you from living the kind of wholly renewed life that Jesus has for you. And if you have observed Lent before, then welcome back to the time of year when you feel more struggle, become more keenly aware of your physical desires and needs, and ultimately make great and small efforts to remember that Jesus really is at the centre of everything. And that no death is too much, too great, for him to find some way to offer life.
Dear Lord – we are excited and terrified at the opportunity to reflect on our sin. We know you’re good, and your grace is greater than all our sin. But that doesn’t make it any easier to have the courage to examine the depths of what might be lurking in our hearts and our minds. So today we call on your great peace that transcends all understanding to guard and guide us as we take the next steps towards you on our journeys of faith. Jesus – we want to be surprised by your joy and so we entrust ourselves fully to you.
Lisl Baker can't believe she's been in Vancouver for over 10 years now. She loves all things French, turning the little things in life into fun adventures, and soccer. Oh, and she happens to be quite fond of the Redemption Church community!