Ash Wednesday this week marks the start of Lent, the 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter.
What does Lent mean for you?
Perhaps there is the excitement of pancake day on Tuesday. Maybe then you think about what you might give up this year. Chocolate? Facebook? Netflix? Meat?
Maybe Lent is something you deliberately do not observe. It has become too trivial, all about superficial self-denial rather than the gospel. Or more than that, it is a distortion of the gospel, seen as a way to do penance and thus earn favour with God rather than trusting in the grace won for us by Jesus.
There is some truth in that. Before the Reformation, Lent was a ritual by which many people thought they could stack up some points with God. The Reformers were right to rebel against that, emphasising the glorious truth that Christ’s work is sufficient for us, there is nothing we can do to add to or take away from His saving work on the cross.
However, let us not lose what is good and beneficial about Lent. Let us not miss this opportunity of spiritual formation, of growing in our faith...
What then are some of the benefits of Lent?
Repenting is, of course, for life – not just for Lent. However it can be helpful to have a season of sustained focus on repentance, which can help develop spiritual habits which we can continue.
Lent is an opportunity for us to grieve and mourn over our sin. During an Ash Wednesday service, ash is smeared over our foreheads, representing our need to “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6).
Why, to make us feel dreadful for forty days and forty nights? No. The ash is in the shape of a cross. The cross shows us the seriousness of our sin; we are so flawed that the creator of the universe had to leave his home in heaven and die for us. And yet the cross also shows us the wondrous heights of God’s love for us. Because of the cross all of our sins are wiped away – all of them! Our debt is paid, it is paid in full.
Lent takes us to the depths of our sin, and then to the heights of God’s mercy.
The forty days of Lent recall the forty days in which Jesus fasted in the wilderness. Just as he gave up food, what can we give up to learn something of the self-denial that Jesus calls us to? We will talk more about fasting below, but for now – what is the point of it? We have seen that it cannot be to earn favour with God.
Rather, it teaches us to depend on God and find our satisfaction in Him. When we hunger from a fasted meal, we realise our dependence on God for our very existence. When we miss turning to the app we would normally go to for escapism but have deleted for Lent, we can talk to Jesus instead. Whenever we deny ourselves something we rely on, we can be reminded of and live out the truth that Christ is all that we need.
How often does Easter thrill your heart? You might enjoy an Easter egg and a bank holiday, but how much does your heart leap about the greatest day in history which has won your salvation forever?
Too often Easter passes us by. However during Lent we can experience deprivation, and mourn the brokenness of our world. We can also be reminded of our mortality. As they say on Ash Wednesday: “you are dust, to dust you shall return.” And then how much more do we rejoice about Jesus’ triumph! How bright the light of the resurrection which lifts us from our mourning and grief!
Don’t miss the opportunity Lent brings this season.
What will it look like for you…?
Let’s consider 3 ways we as a church can prepare our hearts for Easter.