Lent is for penitence or, more generally, feeling sorta bad about yourself. This is a popular option, and it’s one I’ve spent a lot of time on myself. We do kick things off, after all, with the ominous phrase “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and the anguished Psalm 51. The hymns are usually minor key, and they stress themes of repentance and so forth. This is not wrong, and it’s not bad. Our culture combines an emphasis on extravagantly happy self-talk--we are all told that we are special and wonderful and can do anything--with the reality of severe insecurity in our jobs, our relationships, and the feelings about ourselves reflected in social media, to name just a few. I suspect this makes us, on average, more confused and unhappy than we might otherwise be. If, in church, we spend some extra time “worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness” as the old prayer for Ash Wednesday says, it may actually help us be more clear about what in our lives needs to change and what is not actually a sin.
But this is hard to do well and clearly. Penitence is good but feeling sorta bad about ourselves is not. Astringent language of sin and repentance is good, but a general mood of gloom and inadequacy is not. Our God is a jealous God, but not a demanding boss, a fickle lover, or an indifferent Instagram following. So one person in our denomination, then an editor of our magazine, described Lent as a season to “experience the flow of God’s love.” I don’t know what that means, so I’ve never tried it.
So if gloomy Lent or cheery Lent is not what it’s about, maybe Lent is for Christian instruction and initiation. This is probably closer to the original purpose of the season before Easter, back when baptisms typically took place at the Easter Vigil and a lengthy period of preparation reached its peak in the weeks leading up to it. For years, I’ve tried to recapture this spirit by putting new member, baptism, and adult confirmation classes during Lent and inviting the rest of the congregation to share in the lessons. We’re doing that with the Christian Basics class starting March 13 at 10 AM this year. It’s a good opportunity to revisit the heart of our faith and journey with those coming into the church or becoming a part of it in a new way. And we’ll probably spend some time in our Sunday preaching on returning to our confession of faith and what it means.
But there has to be more to Lent than learning. After all, we begin on Ash Wednesday with Jesus’s words about fasting, praying, and giving alms. In keeping with his instructions, Lent can also serve as a time to build up our spiritual practices. It’s a good time to recommit to daily prayer if we’ve gotten out of the habit, to scrutinize our practices of generosity, and to think about the things we can and perhaps should give up for the sake of a closer walk with God (I want to be clear here that you can’t “fast” from a sin; fasting is only for things that are fine in themselves, but that can become a problem or a barrier for us. For actual sins, see the second paragraph above). There’s no wrong time to do these things and no time better than any other. But this is a time to do it together and draw strength from our shared commitments.
Put it all together, and I’d sum up the purpose for Lent as prioritizing our faith. It was just a couple of weeks into Lent when everything changed in 2020, and since then, even as our and everyone else’s activities have returned, our habits and lives have changed. It’s an excellent time to assess whether we can worship more regularly, offer something of ourselves (in worship, music, or ministry) that we have gotten out of the habit of giving, or simply return to God more often in prayer.
All of this has always been available to us, but God provides some moments for us to seize. Whatever your faith needs from Lent this year, please don’t let it go to waste.
See you in church!