As we settle in the midst of the Lenten Season, I begin to ponder what is the Lenten Season. I mean, I know that it represents the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil. I know our sacrifices are in homage to that sacrifice.
But what and why and how? Sometimes I think we do things because we’re “supposed to” without really reflecting on why. And why for us.
I like to start by going backwards. Here’s my experience (kind of amusing that my computer autocorrected that to experiment; what does that mean?) with Lent. I think about what I’m going to give up. If it’s too easy, I’m being lame and not really in the right spirit of sacrifice. If it’s too hard, inevitably I’m not going to make it. I usually go with something challenging or what’s the point? I usually don’t make it 40 days. And then…guilt and anger sets in. I can’t commit to anything. I’m a failure. Jesus spends 40 days resisting the temptation from the devil and I can’t give up cookies? And then, I start to wonder: seriously, so and so managed to give up her favorite vice for 40 days and she’s got no willpower at all. How does she manage this? Maybe she has a better relationship to the divine than me? Maybe she has more fear of God? Maybe she’s lying. So I’m judging and she’s maybe lying….sin on top of sin.
I think we might be going about this the wrong way.
Or, at least, I am. Although, it has actually been quite some years since I have deliberately given up something for Lent (for the exact reasons above: I’m not sure it was helping me to be in the right frame of mind for devotion). I tend to add things in versus take away. This year I am offering food to someone else before myself. With intention, I feed the goats or the cats or the plants. I am reading a spiritual book on loan to me from a friend.
I’m a little more balanced now. I would now consider the Lenten Sacrifice the season of Spiritual Discipline and Spiritual Preparation. What does that mean to you? How do you practice devotion?
Let’s see what lent is. Lent comes from the Old English lencten which means “to lengthen” which represents the lengthening of the sun in the spring season. It is a season of prayer (I think I was missing that part) and penance (I had that one pretty good in an American girl beat-myself-up kind of way). Mortification of flesh, repentance, almsgiving, and denial of ego also come up when we talk of Lent. As always, we have gentle devotion and severe devotion as ends of the spectrum.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday (although there are variations to this: some end on Maundy Thursday or Easter Vigil). If you can count faster than I can, that’s 46 days, but Sundays are excluded.
There is a time of fasting from food and waste. A fasting from festivities. It is a time of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and in modern times a time to give up vices or offer time and money to charity. Fasting from food may include fasting from meat on Ash Wednesday, Fridays (sometimes Saturdays). Some may include only (excuse me) the bloody meats, while other versions include fish, foul, and eggs. Some may fast every day from sunup to sundown or eat only one full meal a day (light breakfast, one full meal, one half meal) with stricter fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Some a full fast one day a week. More recently, official fast days were shifted to Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with Abstinence days on Fridays and the full lenten season was for prayer and charity. These various practices come from the various Christian traditions.
Let’s follow the cycle for just a moment.
Let’s start with Tuesday. Since Lent is a season of fasting from food and waste, there might have been a lot of food that would not keep for 40 days. It is often called Pancake Tuesday because pancakes would use up milk, fat, and eggs (things that were often fasted from). Some took this day as a last chance for festivities and celebrations before Lent. A time to indulge. Carnival and Mardi Gras come to mind. It is sometimes called Shrove Tuesday for the word “absolve”. A day of letting go and self study before the time of practice. It is also a time to let go (perhaps confession) before moving into a season of prayer and giving.
Ash Wednesday. Often the palms of the previous year are used to make the ashes. Palms celebrated the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The ash reminds us that triumph was quickly followed by defeat and crucifixion. Ash Wednesday is time to cleanse the soul; shine up our inner spirit. The ashes represent penitence and our own mortality. Some keep the ash on to bring faith into the world. Some wash it off to represent a cleansing of sin. Four things: death, sadness for sins, change self for the better, reminder that God’s breath is our life (without we are just dust).
The Lenten Season begins. We’re already nearing the halfway mark. So maybe it’s a time to reflect and check in. Didn’t choose well: “oh well, next year”, but what if we begin again? Now. What if we didn’t think about it or start? What if we start? Now. Now is one of my favorite words. Now keeps us out of the mired past that can lead to feelings of guilt and failure to starting fresh again with a fresh heart and a fresh mind.
I said earlier that I now think of this time as a time of Spiritual Discipline, Sacrifice, and Preparation. What are we practicing discipline and sacrifice for? What are we preparing for?
It’s a time of coming back to ritual. Cleanliness and purity for God. Witnessing temptation and desire. It’s about attention to the divine and exploring that. Even in my guilt and anger, I was witnessing my relationship to myself, others, and the divine. Even in my judgment, I was witnessing my relationship to myself, other, and the divine. Even in giving up (“oh well, there’s next year”), I was witnessing my relationship to myself, others, and the divine. I was learning and growing and practicing spiritual discipline.
What happens when we are confronted by temptation and desire during Lent? We think about Jesus and his sacrifice and struggle with the devil.
What happens when we allow ourselves to feel hunger and need during Lent? We think of those who are more in need than ourselves.
What happens when we don’t live up to our expectations or commitments? We think. We learn. We plan better for next time. We think about what it means to break commitments to self, others, and God.
It is about growth and Grace. Not about guilt and shame. Guilt and shame take us away from the divine. Guilt and shame and anger and judgement take us away from the divine. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about practicing, learning, witnessing. And starting again…now (not next year).
I also feel it’s important to know where you are in life. Do you have enough stress (grief, pain, illness, etc) that you need more daily grace versus more sacrifice? Maybe you’ve already been given enough ‘sacrifice’. Truth—you know if this is true for you. Maybe you need a sacrifice food-wise to support the ash/dust that is your body. Maybe your sweet practice is a cup of tea and a spiritual book (whatever that means).
The point is go come closer to God. Daily devotion through sacrifice or internal study, or offering back through money and time to charity, or sitting with God.
Thinking of Jesus in the desert used to bring me guilt and shame. Feelings of inadequacy. I was looking at it the wrong way. That’s not the right spirit. Jesus, even if you take away his divinity at that moment and consider him as human as I, spent his whole life in devotion to God. His work was God. His home-life was God. His social life was God. When he was confronted with the devil, that was his work and life. He wasn’t worried about a sick kid, that bill that needed to be paid, that project that’s due, or anything else. He was fully committed to the spiritual battle. Nothing else. No distractions. Yes, it’s something to strive toward (being more Christ-like), yet…
We are householders. It is not an excuse not to hold us up to our personal high standard (truth continually comes up), but on the other hand, we aren’t monks, or Jesus, devoted to God. We are householders devoted to God. We aren’t perfect. We strive to change our selves for the better, but we are not expected to be perfect. We are simply expected to change ourselves for the better through practice.
Failures or successes are reminders of Jesus’s sacrifice and temptation. Temptation and desire bring our thoughts back to Him. Struggles remind us of His struggle and the struggles of our fellow man.
It’s not about you and the chocolate. It’s about what comes up as you confront your chocolate. It about what comes up when sit with God, and practice sacrifice, discipline, and preparation. It’s about finding Daily Grace and Devotion.