The supermarket Peeps are out. This can only mean one thing: on to the next religious/commercial season!
In about a week, Catholics and some Christians will observe Ash Wednesday 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 of preparation and waiting.
So begins the annual debate amongst Protestants and evangelicals, “to Lent… or not to Lent?” We have a funny relationship with this season… trying to strike a proper balance between the secular and the holy is no small task. Some will go out of their way to not celebrate Lent, calling it a return to the ritualistic stuff the Reformation did away with. “Fish on Fridays!” was a strict observance of my Presbyterian church when I was a kid. Did you know McDonalds’ Filet-O-Fish sandwiches were created to keep Catholic customers happy during Lent? And that the entire Swiss Reformation was kicked off by a couple of priests who decided they wanted some delicious sausages on a Friday during Lent? It was actually called the “Affair of The Sausages” and it’s as entertaining as it sounds.
I came across two images about Lent that sum up this whole debate: The first, a Catholic priest telling us that the purpose of life ain’t about being happy kids… but the purpose of life is to attain perfect life. Or something. I’m not sure actually. In the comments section this guy actually told a new convert to try their “Holy40” program because if you start off too severe at the beginning, you may not make it. The ‘Holy40’ has a nice ring to it I suppose, sounds a bit like the Christian version of chart-topping hits. Regardless, this guy isn’t messing around. You must ‘develop’ a good Lent he says… behave yourself… use the program if you know what’s good for you.
The next picture is one of a lovely affirmation done in the oh so popular new marker script that has taken over our Instagram feeds. This sweet girl promises us that free Lenten printable are coming soon to her shop… (!!!) but that she is actually dreading the approach of the season. She goes on to give a tortured but honest explanation of how if we just ‘do the work’ we too can be transformed by the glory of Easter.
So enters all kinds of confusion about fasting, rituals, personal choice, and spiritual growth. Fat Tuesday binge drinking is followed by somber Ash Wednesday piety. We bask in the work of the cross but work our tails off to feel worthy of it. It is all very odd. Something I’ve noticed about this season, especially in the more evangelical circles, is our 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 also be just another checklist exercise in futility. Here are just a few real-life book examples of the 40-day obsession 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, and my favorite, 40 Days to a Joyful Motherhood… sign me up for that one.
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 just love hitching our wagons to anything with a scheduled outcome though, don’t we?
I think we can all benefit from heartfelt 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. 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 boring about it. It has the Bible verses at the bottom of each page. It doesn’t offer any new strategies or foolproof charts, it just tells the greatest story ever told. Charts and strategies comfort us, but time will prove they are a trap. Even the most spirit-filled, Biblically sound Jesus-lover has to watch out, for it sneaks through the back door of our minds and before we realize, we are trying to formulate ourselves out of our problems. It’s the gospel of self-sufficiency, self-reliance and just all -around self. 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.
Contrary to popular thought, we actually are called to humble ourselves and take up our cross daily (Matthew 16:24). Notice the word “daily”. Not just during Lent or Advent. I think most of us could spend 40 days just on that idea alone. We sacrifice daily. We crucify our flesh daily. We humble ourselves daily. The last thing any of us need is something to make us feel more inferior. 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 point of this coming season is that Jesus took our place and gave us life from death. Ash Wednesday gives way to Resurrection Sunday. I agree with the old Reformers that we don’t need a calendar or holiday to begin or end anything with Jesus, He’s ever-present and doesn’t change. We don’t have seasons of obedience or sacrifice, any more than we have seasons of gluttony or sin. We have our daily bread, our uninterrupted abiding and communion with Jesus.
I do love this time of year and the chance to pause and reflect. I don’t mind Lent as long as it leads away from myself and towards God. But we mourn no longer. We are no longer slaves to sin or self. Ask Him what He would have for you during this time. 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.
What do you do (or not do) for this season?