Lent. A fascinating time in the church year that Presbyterians and other Protestants are only beginning to appreciate. The name LENT has nothing to do with something previously LOANED – it comes from an ancient word that meant “springtime,” – that period of the calendar during which the days LENGTHen. Because the church season always fell at that time of year, the name came to apply there as well. Even after the word “Lent” no longer referred to spring, it was still used by the church to describe the season before Easter.
As you know, the season of Lent as currently observed lasts forty days, Ash Wednesday till Easter. The early church celebrated Lent only for a few days before Easter, but, over the centuries, the season grew until it was several weeks long. In the seventh century, the church set the period of Lent at forty days to remind people of the duration of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.(1) So saying, if you go to your calendar and actually count the number of days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, you total 46! Why the discrepancy? The Sundays during Lent are not counted.
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My own initial encounters with Lent came as a boy growing up in Baltimore. I was as Protestant as could be, but our Presbyterian congregation was a small island in a virtual sea of first and second generation Italian Catholics. Most of my neighborhood chums were good Catholics, and come Ash Wednesday each year, I would see them in public with a smudge of gray on the forehead. I would also hear of some sacrifice or other they planned to make, something they were “giving up for Lent,” a discipline that grew out of the early church’s preparation for membership. (In the Presbyterian church, what I would love to see us do is give up MEETINGS for Lent!)
In a perverse way, that tradition of self-denial is the reason for the raucous celebrations of Mardi Gras – “Fat Tuesday” in French. The Tuesday before somber old Ash Wednesday would arrive was seen as the last chance to kick over the traces before a month-and-a-half of bleakness. Since Lent was traditionally a time of fasting, the day before it began was always one during which people would use up eggs, butter, and other perishables that would not last through the Lenten season, and “Fat Tuesday” was celebrated with many traditional (and tasty!) baked goods. Then would come Ash Wednesday. No more goodies till Easter.
What does Lent mean for us today? Yes, it is still the church season in which we prepare for Easter Sunday. It is a special time of prayer and reflection, of confession and self-denial. As a newspaper columnist had it sometime back (who happens to have a good grasp on the subject by virtue of his own Catholicism), Lent is “AN EXCUSE TO BE BETTER.”(2) He wrote,
A steady stream…paraded down the aisle and paused for a priest to smudge the sign of the cross on our foreheads and warn, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.” The message is: Be humble. No problem. Humility comes easily if you’re a Catholic. The religion is impossible to live up to. Oh, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul and a few others are good Catholics. But the other 600 million or so have plenty of weaknesses to keep us humble…
I vowed to dedicate Lent to a few do-able reforms–eat less (no Italian bread with butter for 40 days!), watch my language [no vulgar tantrums when agitated, such as in traffic jams), speak and think charitably of others, pray for people I envy or resent rather than criticize them. I was merely showing modest goals I’ve set for myself for years (with modest progress), but Lent concentrates mind and soul to try once again to achieve them, Lent is an excuse to be better…
An excuse to be better. I like that. What will Lent, 2001 mean for you? The decision is yours. If I may be so bold, I will offer a few suggestions. In the tradition of “giving up” something for Lent, how about some of these (you have heard these before, but they bear repeating):(3)
* GIVE UP grumbling! Instead, “In everything give thanks.” Constructive criticism is OK, but “moaning, groaning, and complaining” are not Christian disciplines.
* GIVE UP 10 to 15 minutes in bed! Instead, use that time in prayer.
* GIVE UP looking at ether people’s worst points. Instead, concentrate on their BEST points for a change. We all have faults. It will be easier for people overlook OUR shortcomings when we overlook THEIRS first.
* GIVE UP speaking unkindly. Instead, let your speech be generous and understanding. It costs so little to say something kind and uplifting. Check that sharp tongue at the door.
* GIVE UP your hatred of anyone or anything! Instead, learn the discipline of love. “Love covers a multitude of sins.”
* GIVE UP your worries and anxieties! Instead, trust God with them. Anxiety is spending emotional energy on something we can do nothing about…like tomorrow! Live for today and let God’s grace be sufficient.
* GIVE UP TV one evening a week! Instead, visit someone who is lonely or sick. There are those who are isolated by illness or age. Give someone a precious gift, your time!
* GIVE UP buying anything but essentials for yourself! Instead, give the money to God. The money you would spend on the luxuries could help someone meet their basic needs. We are called to be stewards of God’s bounty, not consumers.
Not a long list. I am sure you can think of things to add. Just take Lent, 2001 as an excuse to be better.
Fortunately, we are not alone in our effort. One of my friends recalls helping his grandfather carry heavy buckets of water to his house from a spring: “I would put a pole across the shoulders and a bucket on each end. The house was a good distance away and the first time I tried this, I just could not make it. The buckets were too heavy. And I’ll never forget my grandfather coming out, taking the pole and placing it on his strong shoulders, then carrying them for me. It sure felt good to get rid of those heavy buckets.”(4)
Want to get rid of YOUR heavy buckets? Centuries ago, someone said, “Come to me, all you who all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens…”(5) This is the same one who, even as you wear the ashes that remind of a world of sin and death, invites you to his table. “Come…and I will give you rest.”
1. Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13
2. Bill Reel, “Lent Is An Excuse To Be Better,” NY DAILY NEWS, 2/18/88, p, 37 quoted in Pastor’s Professional Research Service, 1/89-2/89-1
3. List found in my files credited to the Rev. Craig Gates, St. Philip’s, Jackson, MS
4. Bass Mitchell, via Ecunet, “Sermonshop Sermons,” #343, 2/23/98
5. Matthew 11:28
— Copyright 2001, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.