Did you have pancakes on the Tuesday before Lent started? Did anyone you know go to a
traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake supper? No? Me neither. Well, I didn’t go, but I do know one person who claimed that he was going. Somehow pancakes doesn’t say to me, “Let’s really live it up before the fast of Lent.” What’s the most decadent food you can think of? Filet mignon? Lobster? Prime rib? No. Get out the Bisquick. We’re really going to feast.
The tradition of a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper comes from the idea that we should use up all our “special foods” like butter and sugar before Lent begins. If, in your mind, Lent is associated mainly with giving things up. If it means “forty days without chocolate” or “forty days without beer,” or even if it means having a little less money because you are making a few more donations to feed the hungry — a very good thing to do — I invite you to consider that there may be more to Lent. Lent is more than giving things up or giving things away – it’s a spiritual practice.
The word Lent means “springtime.” By definition Lent cannot be completely sad and barren. It’s a time of fasting and self-denial, but it’s also a time of hope and optimism, waiting for the arrival of spring and longer days. Think of some of the amazing days we had at the end of February. If a 70 degree day in February doesn’t give you some encouragement, I don’t know what will.
As the natural world gets a little brighter, we can also open ourselves a bit to the Light of God.
Lent is not about long faces and feeling sad. Remember Jesus said, “And whenever you fast, do
not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18). (This is part of one of the readings for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.) Lent is not about the absence of joy. Lent actually invites us to reconnect with a deeper joy that often is hidden. Our
ordinary lives are so busy and so full of activity, that we don’t have the opportunity to enjoy God, enjoy unhurried conversation with one another or even a simple meal. Lent can be an opportunity for all of those things.
Lent has sometimes been given a negative connotation. If your theology stresses how sorry we
humans should feel for our sins, then it could be a time for feeling extra sorry, and the Lenten fast (that chocolate you’re not eating, that butter that has disappeared, those glasses of beer that are not poured) symbolizes how contrite we sinners are (or should be). But that’s not the only way to understand Lent. I don’t think that is the best way to understand Lent. In our tradition we generally start with a theology centered on God’s mercy rather than humanity’s sinfulness. God is always reaching out to us. God’s unconditional love and forgiveness cannot
be influenced by human efforts to feel contrite or make sacrifices. So, then, why observe Lent?
Lent is not something we do to make God change. It’s something we do in response to God’s
love, to bring about change within ourselves. Lent can change us. Think of it this way. If your garage is full of clutter, and you’ve just bought a shiny new car and you want to use the garage for its intended purpose (to shelter your car rather than your junk), then you have a job to do. You need to clean out the garage. Likewise, Lent is a time when we try to clean out the clutter in our hearts and minds and souls, to prepare ourselves for the joyful gift of new life, freely given to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. (Thanks to Carl McColman for this insight & analogy.)
Lent can be a time of using solitude and silence to reconnect to God on a deeper level. Remember that Jesus often went off to a solitary place to pray. Indeed, the forty days of Lent symbolize the forty days Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness after his Baptism. It was a time of cleansing and deep connection with his Father, and it preceded the launching of his public ministry. So Jesus’s “Lent” was a time of deep inner transformation, through prayer and silence and fasting. It can begin a transformation in us, too.
Lent is a great time to begin or renew a daily prayer practice Bible study or lectio divina. For example, you can read through the Gospel of John during Lent. You can still start, even though Lent began about two weeks ago. Read one chapter of John a day for the rest of March. Take Sundays off. Or take off the day each week that you have the most to do. Even if you miss one or two other days, you’ll be finished by Easter. I promise that, if you read through the whole Gospel of John like this — steadily, more or less day after day — you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the story of Jesus’ life. This is not a great deal of work, but God can use it to make a difference in your life.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to do anything at all for Lent – God loves you regardless. But remember the new car and the cluttered garage. If you leave your garage messy, you can park your car on the street and no one will complain. The car will still run. But you’ll have to get up extra early to scrape all the ice off. It’s a less than ideal situation, but with just a bit of effort you could have a much better arrangement. Likewise, your faith could truly be blessed by a simple 40-day (or, at this point 30- day or even 21-day) discipline. Prayerfully consider it – it’s worth giving it a try.