By Jodi Thomas
I was not raised in the church, so, honestly, I have been pretty clueless about Lent. I’ve had several friends during the years say they were giving up sugar, coffee, or media for Lent, but I never fully understood why. After doing a little research, I’ve come to better understand and certainly appreciate this potentially powerful practice during the weeks leading up to Easter.
Quite simply, Lent is the season prior to Easter where Christians focus on simple living, prayer, and fasting in order to grow closer to God. This year it will run from Ash Wednesday (which was February 10th) to Easter. I was unclear what Ash Wedesday was, since the churches I’ve attended have not practiced it. But the symbolism is lovely. On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21). The crowd was going crazy, shouting, “Hosanna!” (which literally means “I beg you to save!”) and had paved the road with palm fronds. They were ecstaticly praising their long-awaited Messiah. It was a breathtaking moment. However, when Jesus doesn’t quite live up to their Messianic expectations, less than a week later, the shouting reversed to, “Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:22). I love what upperroom.org says, “The palms that were waved in joy became ashes of sorrow.” So, the ashes used in our present Ash Wednesday are from saving the palms from Palm Sunday, burning them, and mixing them with a little oil. These are then used to mark the recipient with an ashen cross on their forehead. The ashes speak of mortality and sin; the cross shouts of Jesus’ resurrection and forgiveness.
In Matthew 4, Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days; immediately afterwards he began his public ministry. Lent is borrowed from the heart of these 40 days. It is a time to simplify, to rid our lives of the things that distract us from God. Most of our lives are filled with frenetic running, and we never take the time to slow down. We gorge ourselves on a steady diet of Facebook, reality TV, stimulants, kids’ sports events, email, packed schedules, and 1,000’s of other things. We hope these things fill us, but typically they only leave us feeling empty. Honestly, how satisfied and renewed do you feel after scrolling through Facebook?
Lent is a great time to “repent,” which literally means “to turn”… to turn from our sin, our constant obsession with doing things our way, and we turn to God, the one who alone can refresh our souls. I just finished a study on repentance and one of my favorite verses I found is from Acts 3:19 where it says, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” I can seek to fill my soul with a myriad of things—some good, some not so good—but I have found I am only truly and deeply refreshed when God Himself fills my soul.
Here are a few suggestions to try during Lent:
FAST from something you use as a distraction… something you turn to for comfort. You can fast from TV, social media, romance novels, sugar, junk food. Instead, seek the Great Comforter to give you the comfort your soul seeks. How about fasting from worry, selfishness, or unforgiveness? What clutters your calendar and life? How can you simplify your life in terms of what you wear, eat, do?
PRAYER. Lent can be a beautiful time for deliberate prayer. Prayer is simply conversation with God. Did you notice that word? Conversation. Most of us are great at telling God what we want. But how is the listening going? That still, small voice seeks to speak to those willing to listen. Reading the Bible is a powerful way to draw closer to God as well. It is the Word of God, after all.
SERVICE. Since Jesus lived a life of service, I’ve heard of some taking on something for Christ during Lent. You can serve the homeless and needy, tutor a less fortunate child, or pursue a cause of social justice in your community. You can commit to help or serve someone in your life—friend, neighbor, relative, teacher—every day. I truly believe that service is a missing link for joy in most of our lives.
There are many ways to honor this season of Lent in our lives, to honor the one who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Of course, the bottom line is drawing closer to the One who loves us unconditionally, who gave His life for us. How will you use this time to grow closer to God?