This Wednesday, throughout the Christian world—especially in places like New Orleans and Rio, and even Springfield, Missouri—people will wake up on Wednesday morning with a headache, also called a “hangover.” They will be suffering the effects of Mardi gras, or Fat Tuesday, the last day to “let it all hang out” before the beginning of Lent on Wednesday the 17th, or Ash Wednesday. I’m sure at least a few of those revelers will be “repentant” of their activities the night before, whether because of a hangover, or remembering what they did. Most likely, however, their repentance won’t because it is Ash Wednesday.
In the Old Testament, covering one’s head with ashes was an expression of mourning and of repentance for one’s sins. In Job 42:5-6, Job says to God: “My ears have heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” As the Early Church grew, the practice of distributing ashes to the faithful became more prevalent. On Ash Wednesday, believers come to the church to receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their repentance and an affirmation of their need for God in their lives.
In fact, Ash Wednesday is the official beginning of “Lent,” a season of the church. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, where the season of Lent was an important part of the pre-Easter season. Imagine my surprise when some of my Evangelical friends asked me what I was talking about when I mentioned it.
A Brief Primer on Lent
Early in its history, the Church became an accepted part of society, causing believers to lose much of their vibrancy and separation from “the world.” No longer fearing arrest for their faith or persecution, church people became comfortable and complacent. Church leaders, seeking to remedy this situation, instituted the season of Lent, a 40-day period within which Christian believers are encouraged to participate in self-examination and reflection. Jesus’ days in the wilderness, along with Moses’ years in the wilderness, inspired the 40-day period.
Modern Lenten Practices
And so the question, “What have you given up for Lent?” Believers from varying Christian traditions continue the practice of making a “sacrifice” for Lent. For some it may be a favorite snack, like chocolate. Too hard for me! Others may give up television or video games. Still others might make more meaningful sacrifices. One man related, “I asked a friend what he gave up for Lent. With great pride he told me, ‘I gave up smoking!’ ‘When did you start smoking?’ I asked him. He replied, ‘That’s just it. I’m giving up starting.’ ”
So, if we were to follow the Early Church example of spending 40 days in self-examination and reflection, what would we give up? I once knew a guy who gave up beer during Lent. By the time Easter arrived he had lost weight, felt great, and hadn’t started a drunken argument with his wife for weeks. Unfortunately, on Easter afternoon, after returning from church, he made up for the past 40 days. Within two weeks every benefit received in 40 days was undone. Not exactly what the church leaders had in mind!
The point of the Lenten season isn’t just to fill your children’s Easter baskets or prepare for spring planting. It is a time of serious self-reflection in which we remove ourselves from some of the most powerful attention-getters in our lives. For some, as stated above, it may be the internet and its social networking sites. The question we ask ourselves should be, Where do I spend most of my time, most of my thoughts, most of my money?
Even though Ash Wednesday is in just a few days, it isn’t too late to bring this ancient tradition into your spiritual journey. If your time-waster is television, think about turning it off. You can always see the re-runs later. But for now you can spend a little more time reading the Bible or in prayer.
Maybe your “addiction” is spending money. So give to worthy causes. Maybe spend some time at a food bank helping those who aren’t as blessed as you. And, of course, if chocolate is your “weakness,” why not explore some healthy alternatives and maybe eat a few vegetables during Lent?
The point of Lenten “sacrifices” is not just doing without something you love, but taking time to learn what you are doing with your life. In Matthew, chapter 6, Jesus cautions his hearers, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (v. 1). If you do choose to “give up” something to make your Lenten journey to Easter more meaningful, don’t do it to be seen by others.
Jesus continued in verses 16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
As you look within to discern where you stand in faith and commitment to God, do so individually, not making a show of it. Find ways to reach other to others or to help someone needy. Instead of sending an e-mail, sit down and write a letter to someone who needs to hear an encouraging word. Spend some time reading your Bible or attending a Bible study class. Most of all, spend time talking to the One who is always ready to hear from you. Take time to know God and to discover the important things in life, the things that truly will last. Who knows? Maybe when the Easter baskets are empty, and you’re eating chocolate again, you just might find yourself in a better place, that of a closer and more vital relationship with God.
May God richly bless you this Lenten and Easter season.
Mary Kay Glunt, Pastor
Ebenezer Presbyterian, Greenfield