Lent: Why?

I was raised Roman Catholic and have been a member of The Episcopal Church, and therefore also the greater Anglican Communion, since January 2009, so I celebrate the traditional Liturgical Calendar, which includes the Season of Lent.

Lent is a forty-day period (forty-six if you count the Sundays) that traces what is believed to be the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert. It begins on Ash Wednesday, which is a day of fasting accompanied by a church service with a ritual that involves the clergy placing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the worshipers with a mixture of the ashes of the previous year’s Palm Sunday’s palm crosses and an oil that’s otherwise reserved for the Sacrament of Baptism. Lent ends on Holy Thursday, giving way to the Easter Triduum which ends on Easter Sunday, the day chosen to mark when Jesus resurrected and thereby completed the ultimate sacrifice that provides salvation to all who ask for it.

There’s a number of important days within the Season of Lent. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, which is the final week before Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Holy Wednesday marks the day when apostle Judas Iscariot conspired to betray Jesus. Holy Thursday is the commemoration of the Last Supper, is the official final day of the Season of Lent, and marks the beginning of the Easter Triduum. Good Friday is the Friday before Easter. It is the day remembered as the crucifixion of Jesus and is the only other fast day in this time period besides Ash Wednesday. Holy Saturday commemorates Jesus’ body being laid in the tomb. Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Christ, beginning a new season of the Liturgical Calendar: Easter. The Easter Season is celebrated for seven weeks before the next Season, Pentecost, begins.

Lent is a Season of penance and purification of soul. It is an opportunity to reflect on the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation and strive to live more Christian lives and likewise sacrifice for the sake of others. However, the ideology of Sacrifice has changed a bit over the centuries. The required fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday devolved from forsaking all food and drinks besides water to having a light breakfast and a light dinner. The required sacrifice of “luxury food” on Fridays, known for its general declaration to only eat fish, went from partaking in the readily accessible food of the poor (ie. fish) to enjoying a weekly sushi dinner. The forty-day vows of sacrifice went from actual burdens for the benefit of others to maybe giving up chocolate or Facebook for as long as one can manage it. How many times do I have to hear, “I’m giving up Lent for Lent!” Yeah, it wasn’t funny the first time I heard it.

Please understand, I’m nothing special here. I’m as sinful and flawed as the next guy. But when we discuss Lent, there needs to be some communication to the people who don’t care about the Liturgical Calendar that there’s a lot more to it than the half-arsed effort we put into it today. There’s substantial tradition and deep meaning for the whole Season that reflect on the very basis of our believed Salvation.

It’s because of this that I’ve been having a really difficult time finding a Lenten Sacrifice. Stop smoking? Sure. Stop drinking? Sure. The problem is that neither of those things really benefit others. Benefits can be argued, obviously, but since neither of those things are really a trouble for me to give up, it’s better to just give them up as a lifestyle and concentrate on a real Lenten Sacrifice.

The Gospel relates that Jesus was in the dessert for forty days. Just as Jesus did not live his whole life with fasting out in the desert, we aren’t supposed to have a Lenten sacrifice that would be a lifestyle improvement for the rest of our days. It ought to be something that we can struggle to do for forty days but in no way could reasonably do for our whole lives.

There is more to Lent than just sacrifice. A necessary part of purification and penance is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Roman Catholics have it. Episcopalians don’t always. As an Episcopalian, I now seek reconciliation in General Confession (which is fine even by Roman Catholic standards since I have no mortal sins at the moment) and additional prayer. Other Episcopalians may have different experiences. There’s a tremendous act of atonement during these forty days that manifests through the absolution of sin, worship and prayer, and sacrifice for the benefit of others. The combination of “taking away” and “adding to” is what can provide someone with a positive and balanced religious experience.

In a later part of the morning on this Sunday, I’ll be in the usual church pew for the First Sunday of Lent. Probably most likely, I will still be without an official Lenten Sacrifice. It’s not the end of the world and certainly doesn’t doom me to Hell, but I feel a bit adrift without this traditional mission statement. Next year, I might start thinking about my Lenten Sacrifice during Epiphany!

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