I have had a bit of a journey in my understanding of Lent. Growing up in a Pentecostal church in the West of Scotland meant that for me, “lent” was what we did when we allowed the next door neighbours to use our lawn mower. Later I kind of picked up that “Lent” was something Catholics did before Easter and was probably designed to help them earn their salvation and so was deeply wrong. While pastoring in England I encountered more protestants, and strangely even people who weren’t part of the church, who talked about Lent but it seemed mainly to consist of just giving something up. To be frank most often than not it seemed to be women who were giving chocolate or biscuits. Lent seemed like weight watchers with vaguely religious over tones.
My attitude in the last few years has changed completely and I now think that Lent is an incredibly helpful church tradition both for churches as a communities and for individual Christians. I am so convinced about that, that I want to invite everyone connected to Mosaic Edinburgh to “observe” Lent together. We are going to call our Lent observance “Journeying With Jesus” and I want to talk more about that later but I wanted to fill you in on a little bit of the background to what Lent is about and why potentially it can be of spiritual significance.
In basic terms, Lent is the period before Easter and starts on Ash Wednesday and then goes on 40 days. I know some of you are maths geniuses and will work out that that period is more than 40 days, well that is because traditionally Sundays have been excluded because on Sundays the church celebrates the resurrection. So why 40 days? Well in reading the Bible you have probably realised that 40 is period of time of spiritual significance. Noah and his family were in the Ark for 40 days, the children of Israel learned what it meant to be God’s people through 40 years in the wilderness, Jonah learned about God’s grace after 40 days in the belly of the fish and Jesus prepared for his ministry by spending 40 days in the desert. So in observing the 40 days of Lent we are placing ourselves in this tradition among God’s people down the centuries and all over the world of being open to God and learning from God.
The purpose of Lent is to be a time of transformation through activities and emphasises like fasting, self-denial, spiritual growth, conversion, and simplicity. The word “Lent” comes from the old German word for springtime, and maybe the best way to understand it is a spiritual spring cleaning. Its a time for taking a personal spiritual inventory and then cleaning out those things which hold back our corporate and personal relationships with Jesus Christ and our service to him. That’s why the season of Lent usually begins with a symbol of repentance: placing ashes mixed with oil on one’s head or forehead, it means we are getting serious about picking up our crosses and following Christ. However, we must remember that our Lenten spiritual disciplines are not an end in themselves they are designed to connect us to the power of the Holy Spirit in a way which transforms our entire person: body, soul, and spirit, and helps us become more like Christ.
There are a few basic spiritual exercises which traditionally have been associated with Lent. Many of these have a long history. These are fasting, giving to the poor, Scripture and devotional reading and prayer. I would really like us individually and as a community to try and be committed to these four spiritual disciplines.
Here is what they are in a bit more detail and how we are going to try and connect with them as a community
FASTING : Fasting has always been a major part of Lent, in fact the Catholic Church requires its members to fast on certain days during Lent. The essence of fasting is about abstaining from something, ie usually food, in order to develop discipline (vital for disciples) but also so you can concentrate on something else, God.
Recently the emphasis has moved on to the idea of “abstinence” rather than just stopping eating. The idea now is to experience spiritual growth by taking control over something which has been dominating or controlling your life whether its sinful or unhelpful. So people give up the internet or tv, others pay special attention to putting effort into giving up a sin they are susceptible to, maybe losing their temper etc. The central purpose is for us, with the Holy Spirit’s power to regain control of our lives and so to allow nothing but our Lord and His Kingdom to be the dominating force in our life.
So why not spend some time thinking about what you should give up? Is there anything sinful or unhelpful that has been gaining power over you that Lent could give the opportunity to break its power? Its always easier to stick with a fast if you share with someone what you will be fasting from.
PRAYER ….. Jesus seems to have spent most of his 40 days of spiritual significance in the wilderness praying so its not surprising that in Lent the church has always put a big emphasis on it being a time of prayer. Lets be honest most of us struggle with our prayer lives. Which means that Lent can be a great time of mutual encouragement and learning for us as we all try and develop our prayer lives.
Another traditional activity connected to prayer in the church which developed from the bible was praying at set times of the day. Prayer then becomes the thing that shapes your day and so hopefully your life. So over Lent we will post morning and evening prayers on our Lent blog which could be the basis for your prayers. They could be a really helpful way for us all to get more disciplined in our prayer life.
SCRIPTURE READING: …. When facing temptation in the desert, Jesus relied on Scripture to counter the wiles of the devil. It is a formidable weapon for us as well in our struggle against sin and the Evil One. Biblical illiteracy among Christians of all types is rampant and, quite honestly, shameful. So Lent can be an excellent time to remedy this problem, its a great period for us to get into the Bible in depth.
I am really excited about this one. One the key things we need to do over the next few months is allow Jesus to shape how we understand what it means to live as God’s people. So every day during Lent we are going to post a passage from the Gospels and journey with Jesus to the empty tomb through the cross. We are not just going to do it individually. As I said we are going to have a special Lent Blog and everyday post up the passage to read but we are hoping that every one in our community will contribute their thoughts on these passages. The idea is every day a different person will post their thoughts on the passage and of course we can all share and interact through the blog, or even personally 😉 More details on this to follow.
DEVOTIONAL READING … Another emphasis in Lent has been reading devotional books, listening to writers down the centuries and in our generation who understand what it means to live for God and can inform and inspire us in our walk with God. I am going to make up a list of books about Jesus that you read over lent and I will also post the odd bit from some spiritual writers from past generations that maybe you haven’t come across before.
I read a lot of “junk food literature” my motorcycle magazines, history books etc. Nothing really wrong with that in itself but during Lent I will be giving that up and using the time to read some devotional books, maybe you could consider doing something similar?
GIVING TO THE POOR …. The last big emphasis in Lent has always been about giving to the poor. That’s not really surprising is it? If you concentrate on Jesus for any length of time you are going to be shaped by his sacrificial love and special concern for the least, the lonely and left out. As well as hopefully individual acts of compassion I am hoping we will all get behind a community effort. During Lent some of us will be taking part in the Bethany Big Sleep Out, spend a night “sleeping rough” to raise awareness of and money to alleviate homelessness in our city. It would be tremendous if we all got behind this and raised money and sacrificed our own in order to support Bethany and their work with the homeless. Let’s brainstorm ideas on Sunday.
I know that Lent might something new to many of you but I also hope you can all see the tremendous spiritual potential there is for in it for us both as a community and as individual Christ followers. Its a chance to get serious about allowing Jesus to shape our lives and our lives together in transforming way. I hope you are up for it.