Walking though the grocery store yesterday, I felt a little spark of excitement that I experience every year around this time: I saw the jelly beans and little planters of tulips. I look forward to Easter season the way most people look forward to Christmas, and I know you aren’t supposed to admit this kind of thing, but Easter is actually my favorite holiday.
The days are slowly getting longer and brighter. Waking up at 6 am during the winter months is trying on the soul… but once the sun begins to make an appearance, I find I’m able to make my kids breakfast with a little more cheer. Oh, there’s still plenty of snow to be had and it’s still unbearably cold outside, but there are signs: little patches of green starting to appear under the snow, birds zipping all around the patio searching out a place to nest, and of course the grocery store Peeps.
Catholics will observe Ash Wednesday today and begin the season of Lent, a time of remembering the wilderness journey of Jesus and His ultimate sacrifice for us. Much like Advent, Lent is a season where we prepare, we long, we wait. Some people fast. Some give up random things like chocolate or alcohol or caffeine.
We try and strike a balance between the secular and the holy. Yesterday was Fat Tuesday, a day of feasting before the inevitable Ash Wednesday day of mourning and sacrificing. Something I’ve noticed about this season, especially in the more evangelical circles is the affinity for the “40 Day” cycle. Much like Advent in December where we count down the days to the arrival, the 40 day road to Easter gives us a chance to reflect, wait and hopefully draw nearer to Jesus.
Here’s the hook: 40 days has huge Biblical significance and can be a meaningful time for us. It can, however, also be just another checklist exercise in futility.
Here are just a few examples that got me wondering if maybe we’ve gone off the rails just a little bit:
40 Days to a More Generous Life, 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed, 40 Days of Decrease, 40 Days of Biblical Declarations, 40 Days to Lasting Change, 40 Day Soul Fast, The 40 Day Prayer Challenge; Draw the Circle, and my favorite, 40 Days to a Joyful Motherhood… sign me up for that one.
I’m being sarcastic, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s offered to us. Some of these books or studies can be beneficial, some I know are not. We seem to have a 40 day obsession.
I’m no different than the masses, I think we can all benefit from seasons of reflection as we lead up to Easter. I personally am not giving up any coffee or wine, but I am picking up God’s Word. This season I like to focus on the Gospels, the story as it is told to us, Jesus as He is represented, as He IS. We have an old book of paintings that tells story of the Passion of Christ, it’s simple, but there’s nothing really simple or boring about it. It has the Bible verses at the bottom of each page. I realize this isn’t very exciting, it doesn’t offer any new strategies or foolproof charts, it just points to Jesus and what He did. Charts and strategies comfort us though, but time will prove they are a trap. We all do it, it’s a coping mechanism and a comfort to have something to grab on to. We like when things fit, like a numbers equation with one answer. Even the most spirit-filled, Biblically sound Jesus-lover has to watch out for it, for it sneaks through via the back door of our minds and before we realize, it’s camped out in the living room. It’s the gospel of self-sufficiency, self-reliance and just all -around self. We are really good at inserting our ‘self’ into the story, so much so that there isn’t room for Jesus. That’s why we are drawn to all these diversions, it’s why these books sell so well. There must be some little trick, if we can just figure out the key, we’ll have it all figured out. By our selves.
At the end of these 40 days what do we expect? What if I read my little book or study and nothing really happens? If that’s the case, it wasn’t about Jesus to begin with. It was about self. There’s no shortage right now of self-help parading around as Jesus, but having none of His actual qualities. It’s a feel-good, dead-end circle. Our desire should be a consistent and ever-growing relationship with an ever-present Savior. One on one. Studies are good, people are even better… we just need to be discerning about which voices are the loudest in our minds.
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and to dust we will return (Ecclesiastes 3:10), it’s a solemn reminder, but I don’t mourn today. We don’t need to wait 40 days to celebrate a risen Savior. Reflect? Yes, as long as it leads you to the cross and not back to yourself. Contrary to popular thought, we actually are called to humble ourselves and take up our cross (Matthew 16:24). I think most of us could spend 40 days just on that idea alone. In a world that says we always must be on our A game, Jesus calls us over to the sidelines sometimes. The last thing any of us need is something to make us feel more inferior. If that’s how this season makes you feel, may I humbly suggest dumping everything and going to God’s Word with open hands and heart. I promise, He will respond. Better yet, HE promises He will respond, which is way better than my word. Things may go awry during your 40 days of this or that… it’s ok. It’s not about finding perfection, it’s about finding Jesus, and ourselves within Him.
The resurrection gave us our life back, it gives us hope and a reason to not sit in ashes any longer. Sometimes the worst messages come in the most beautiful packaging. In the same way, the most profound and life-changing truths can be found in the most plain places. The old Bible in the drawer. A heartfelt prayer in the middle of the night. Jesus is there. You don’t need a calendar or holiday to begin or end anything with Him, He’s ever-present and surprisingly flexible with us.
This is a beautiful season of renewal and reflection. Use it, enjoy it, and don’t get pressured into making it about performance or self-improvement. Jesus died and put all that to rest. We mourn no longer. Ask Him what He would has for you during this season. The fantastic thing is, it’s different for every one of us. Let Him decide what your 40 days will look like and I guarantee it’ll be better than any study book you could every buy.