This Sunday is the Second Sunday in Lent, so what is Lent? While Lent may be familiar to those who grew up in ritual-focused churches, but to those whose faith is not based in a liturgically oriented institutional church, it is an alien concept.
Here are three questions I often address regarding Lent:
What is Lent? The word Lent is a shortened form of the Teutonic English word lencten meaning “spring season.” It is a 50-day period before Easter or 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, excluding Sundays. It is copied from the Jewish tradition of Pentecost or 50 days.
Why 40 days? The number 40 is used in the Bible as a period of suffering or tragedy. It rained for 40 days, and the flood killed everyone in the world except for Noah and his family on the ark. Moses was absent for 40 days as he communed with God on Mt. Sinai, and during his absence, the Israelites made and worshipped a golden calf. Elijah walked for 40 days to escape Jezebel's threat to his life. Jesus was tested in the desert for 40 days, and he was dead for 40 hours.
Why eat fish on Fridays during Lent? Fasting is a spiritual discipline exercised by every religion in the world. The early church imitated Jesus’ fasting for 40 days in the desert to get ready for his ministry by fasting and spending time in prayer of penance and meditating on the sacrifice of Jesus. When beef and pork became scarce during the plague, the Catholic church encouraged people to eat fish during Lent. The WWII restaurant industry promoted “all you can eat fish” on Fridays during Lent. It’s not in the Bible.
In our post-modern, post-Christian, post-church world, I believe Lent would have more meaning if we focused not on our own personal piety but focused making the presence of Jesus more real in our world. The message of the love of God in Jesus is not good news if we make it a special privilege only for a few; it is seen as manipulative, vengeful, and xenophobic. The message of the love of God in Jesus is good news when it is consistent with the Bible, which makes clear that Jesus went to the cross for everyone.
Each year, I ask you to be a part of our Lenten Challenge to manifest Jesus in a real way in your world by giving yourself away to others, just as Jesus gave his life up for us. Just as Jesus healed the sick, freed the oppressed, and uplifted the downtrodden on his way to the cross, let us give ourselves away to others in service, acts of kindness, and working for justice. Let us join Jesus on the journey to the cross.
True spiritual piety is not behaving more piously, as Jesus judged the appearance of piety of the Pharisees as hypocrisy. True piety is poured out for others. Spiritual piety is serving others. True piety is fighting for systemic changes even when it seems impossible. Spiritual piety is not claiming our rights but giving away our privileges for the sake of others. True spiritual piety rejoices when others gain advantages over us. True spiritual piety rejoices in others experiencing the grace of God.
Let us engage in true spiritual piety this Lenten Season.