I wasn't going to do this - Christian blogger writes about Lent on day 1....*yawn* - but well, here I am. It kind of ties in to some of the things I've been saying for the past couple of days, and I think there's something important about today, about this season, that we, as Christ's people, need to understand.
And I'll be the first to admit that there's a lot that I need to get. Lent is another one of those things that we don't really "do" in my faith tradition. There will be no one at my building today spreading ashes. There will be no Lent devotionals or even conversations, really, except what we may post on Facebook or Twitter or other social media. And that's kind of the problem.
I first learned about Lent from my friends, and quite prominently, from social media. I had heard the word, even as a heathen, but had never understood what this celebration means to a person who engages in it. As the social interweb started to explode, I came to understand a few things about the Lenten season:
First, Lent is a time when people give up things that are very important to them - like meat, Coke, and chocolate. Second, the aim is to use this time to make you a better person. Or to show your strength of will. Or just to see if you "can."
Now, that's the social perception of this season. In fact, if you watch closely, you will see persons with no professed faith at all embracing the time of Lent because they see it as simply that - a socially approved opportunity to try something new, give up something old, and become a better person. For any number of reasons. While I'm not saying it's necessarily bad to make positive changes, it's not Lent.
Lent is a time of preparation, as Jesus' forty days in the wilderness prepared Him for public ministry. It is a time we use to reflect on what's coming for us - Holy Week, and the time when Jesus sacrificed Himself for our benefit. It is a time to prepare ourselves to enter the ministry of Jesus, to accept His anointing, His blessing, and His gift and set out to do His work. We celebrate through penitence, yes, but not some cheap contriteness about how many calories we've consumed.
It's all symbolic. I get that. You can give up whatever you want for Lent; that's not my complaint. My problem is that we seem to have made Lent entirely about the symbol. We give things up, but we have forgotten why it is that we give them up - to draw us closer to God. People give up soft drinks for Lent, and then spend forty days talking about how much they want a Coke when what they should really be thinking during this time is how powerfully they are thirsting for God. People give up chocolate and lament every time they pass the candy aisle, but they are very few any more who long for the sweetness of God. The whole point of Lent is to increase your appetite for the holy, to create a vacant space in your life for God to come in.
It's not about making you a better person; it's about making God a closer God.
Jesus said if you want to follow Him, you must lay down your life and take up His Cross. That, to me, is what the Lenten season is about. As I look around, I think we have gotten all-too-comfortable with the former to the neglect of the latter. It's not so hard to lay down our lives, at least not for forty days (as agonizing as some people would have you believe it is), but it's incredibly difficult to pick up His Cross. So we've cut that out altogether, but let me be honest: we do not live empty.
We can't. So when we lay down our lives this Lenten season, when we give up the things we enjoy and take pleasure in, we create an empty space that will not stay empty. We will fill it with something. Either we pick up the Cross or something else will pick up our empty spaces. Something else like...complaining. Like...counting the days. Like...temptation. Like...a new vice. I'm not willing to trade a good thing for just another thing. I want something better.
Celebrate Lent. By all means, create an empty space in your life this year. Prepare yourself for the coming Cross. But as you do, search for the God of the empty spaces and invite Him to fill more of you. That's what this is really about. That's Lent.