Recalling all the important things all the time is not something we humans can do. Keeping everything that matters in our minds so that it can shape us? Just not possible. We need specific times and specific seasons to draw our focus so that we can sit with one or two truths for a while and digest them. Without these pauses we find ourselves hurrying from one thing to the next without actually absorbing and growing from our experiences.
Lent is exactly this kind of pause: a yearly season in the life of the Church, a specific six-week time of remembrance and formation. In preparation for Easter, arguably the most important moment in the Christian year, we focus on Jesus' time in the wilderness that occurred just after his Baptism and just before his approximately three years of healing, teaching, calling disciples and generally causing a wild rumpus. The accounts of Jesus in the wilderness can be found in Matthew 4 and Luke 4.
The wilderness metaphor is a few things. First, Jesus going into the wilderness is a sort of reenactment of the Exodus story and of Israel’s wanderings for 40 years in the desert, which connects us to the themes (in Jesus’ work and in our own lives) of liberation and dependence on God. The wilderness is a harsh and hostile place of death, and without divine intervention there is no survival. But the widlerness is also where God sets us free from the tangles of more civilized life. Second, the wilderness the place of conflict, of Good vs. Evil without any complications to confuse the issue. It is the place where the adversary confronts Jesus and offers him the paths of economic, political and religious power, and where Jesus rejects all these offers, instead trusting in God’s love and promises. Finally, the wilderness is a place outside of civilization and its distractions, where we can think more clearly work out what really matters to us. It is a place of prayer and contemplation.
Lent, then, is a season where Christians try to intentionally focus on some quite downer ideas. We focus on mortality, weakness and suffering within ourselves and the world, as a way to see our own need for God and for God’s provision. We focus on prayer and contemplation and reading the scriptures so that we may better know God’s presence with us and God’s love for us. And we spend time thinking through our own wrong-doing, wrong-thinking and wrong-feeling; what Christians call sin. We do this to open ourselves up to repentance and make room for God to change us for the better. We confess the things we as individual Christians and the Church as a whole get wrong and we ask to be changed by God so that we can be more loving, honouring and kind to our neighbours.
Many Christians find it helpful to give something up during Lent, like chocolate or alcohol or coffee. This is not a requirement. The practice gets a bad rap even among many Christians because it can seem like an attempt to earn God’s favour or like denial is itself being treated as a virtue. It can also unhelpfully communicate a purtianical or self-righteous view of Christianity, as if the things we choose to give up are somehow bad in themselves. Really, some Christians choose to give up something for six weeks for two reasons: first, it's a reminder that material stuff does not bring life; only God brings life. Cutting a luxury out is a visceral reminder of our dependence on God and a rejection of our culture of materialism. Secondly, and most importantly, by cutting something out we are trying to create additional space for God in our lives as we prepare for Easter.
Lent can be an austere, challenging and sober season. But it is a season that helps Christians to let go of the harmful power games and instead focus on a loving relationship with God and those around us. It prepares us for the joy and the “magic” of Easter; the hope of crucifixion and resurrection.
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