Most of my friends think I’m crazy, but I adore Lent. From the ashes on Ash Wednesday to the candles on Holy Saturday, the season captures me in a way nothing else does. I love the idea of being joined with the whole church in prayer and repentance, across the world and time. I love the time of rest and preparation for the triumph of our Messiah. I love the communal fasting with my church, and the deep sense of community it brings: We may not all be fasting from the same things, but we are still all fasting together.
I love the intentionality that comes with Lent, because I have to pay closer attention to my diet, or my time, or my money, and consider how they all can bring glory to God. I even love the change in my church’s worship services, because the solemnity (we don’t even say Alleluia) makes the joy of Easter Sunday that much more poignant. In the preparation, anticipation and longing for Easter, I have come to understand how “all creation groans” waiting for our redemption. And every year I find I need this time of repentance and refocus more and more.
References to Lent can be found as early as the end of the second century. St. Irenaus writes of a period of fasting before Easter that originated “in the time of our forefathers” — “forefathers” being a reference to the apostles. The council of Nicea in 325 refers to “the 40 days of Lent.” The number 40 has long specified preparation: Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights before he received the Law on Mount Sinai, and Israel spent 40 years in the desert before entering Canaan. Jesus fasted 40 days before beginning His public ministry, and the earliest Christians believed Jesus was dead in His grave for 40 hours. In participating in this fast, we join with believers from all millennia and in a mysterious way, with Christ himself.
The three-fold disciplines for Lent are fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Traditionally, Lenten fasting involves abstaining from certain foods, usually meat; however, it’s best to spend some time in prayer to see what God would have you give up. (Disclaimer: Talk to a health care professional before starting a fast, especially if you have concerns.) Because Lent is a time of spiritual growth and preparation, many people usually add a book to read as well. You can add to or subtract from your practices as you and God see fit; these are a few examples I’ve used or seen friends and parishioners use.
- The traditional Lenten fast has been abstaining from meat. If you really want a challenge, you can adopt the Eastern Orthodox method and go vegan for all of Lent.
- Fast from all drinks but water.
- Give up a certain category of food, such as bread or sweets.
- Give up Starbucks or fast food.
- Go on a technology fast: log off of Facebook, unplug the TV or radio, or only use your iPhone as a phone.
- Give up makeup, or don’t buy any new clothes for the duration of Lent.
- Give up all non-Christian books and music.
- Find the names of the missionaries your church supports, and pray for them.
- Observe the daily offices: Morning, Noon and Evening Prayer.
- Get together with friends for regular morning prayer.
- Tithe your hours: Spend the first six minutes of each hour in prayer.
- Pray for your pastors and leaders of your church.
- Pray for the persecuted church.
- If you’re fasting from food or drink, donate the money you would normally spend to an organization that addresses hunger.
- Support your church’s missionaries.
- Donate to organizations that support the persecuted church.
- Volunteer at a soup kitchen, food bank or homeless shelter.
- Visit the elderly, home-bound and ill in your congregation.
Books for Lent:
- Confessions by St. Augustine (or City of God if you’re really ambitious)
- The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity or The Great Divorce, all by C.S. Lewis
- Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
- The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
- The Apostolic Fathers
- The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
These are just a few suggestions, but hopefully they provide a good foundation from which you can make your Lenten observations your own. May it be a time of introspection, spiritual growth and joy.
Remember we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
Catherine Emanuel lives, works and worships in Denver, Colorado.
Copyright 2014 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.