I spoke to someone today who knew nothing at all about Lent, other than about the "lint" that you find in the clothes dryer. I realized that the terms I use routinely are like a foreign language to her. So, she suggested it might be a good idea to blog about it, to let people know what Lent is really all about.
Most people know that Lent is when Catholics (and some Lutherans and Episcopalians) get ashes smeared on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday and after that, they give up something they like for forty days until Easter. When most people hear of this, it seems really odd and even incomprehensible to them. What's the point? They wonder. How weird!
I'm sure a lot of people hear or read this, roll their eyes and think to themselves, "Why do they want to deprive themselves?" Sure. Well, it isn't typically "fun." It's a pretty serious time for us, a time of sacrifice. We're also happy and joyful, but overall, Lent is a somber season.
So, what is Lent and why do we call it a "season" anyway?
Lent is a Church season. Just like we all have fall, winter, spring and summer, the Church has Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. We follow the cycle of a Church calendar so that we (as one united church family of 1.2 billion people) can explore the life of Christ and how it relates to us, not just individually, but together.
The way I explained this to my friend today was that my relationship with Jesus is a friendship. Friends listen to each other and want to get to know each other. I don't have a one-sided relationship with God, like I would have like a therapist, teacher or a purely authority figure. I have an intimate relationship with God through Jesus, and so because I love Him, I take the time to get to know Him.
When I pray, I don't just talk to him about my life, to try to get him to understand me and my moods and needs, but I try to understand Him, both as God AND as a human being, like me. As a human being, He has normal feelings, just as we have. He has sadness, anger, fear and joy.
What's the first thing you do when you form a new friendship? You want to learn about the other person. You listen to their experiences and you imagine being in their "shoes" as best you can. You think about how the other person may have felt about things and what they went through.
Jesus went through a lot between the time when he was arrested and when he died on the cross. Because He went through so many intense and important things, we have a ritual called, "The Stations of the Cross," which allows us to meditate deeply upon each event Jesus experienced on His last day.
Why would we do that? Why would we be so focused on that? Because we feel sad that our friend had to go through all that for us. We want to show Him respect and honor. We want to show Him we care about what happened and what he went through. A friend would do this for a friend. It's like being a good, caring and attentive listener, a witness to His pain and appreciative of His gift of Himself.
When we give things up, whatever they are, we are letting Jesus know that we want to give gifts to Him too. We want to offer Him small gifts of sacrifice to show our appreciation. Making our small sacrifices helps us empathize and identify with His pain and sacrifice and it helps unite us to Him. He made the Ultimate Sacrifice and nothing we can give means anything next to that. But, we need to learn to grow in love and so we practice giving all we can give back to Him.
So, that's why crazy Catholics give up chocolate or alcohol or Facebook or television for forty whole days. It's a very little action that means a whole lot more when we approach it in the right way. Sure, some people just go through the motions, but we are lucky to have special events, programs and liturgies throughout the lenten season to deepen our relationship with God as much as we feel drawn or inclined.
Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins our season of Lent. I look forward to it even though it's not an easy time, because I know the more I put into it, the closer I grow towards God.