The Book of Common Prayer, in its service for Ash Wednesday, includes the following proclamation:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. The season of Lent is that time of preparation.
Lent is still a fairly new concept for some Baptists. True enough, we Baptists haven’t always been quick to embrace the ancient traditions and practices of the early church. But an increasing number of us are realizing the profound spiritual benefits of observing Lent alongside our more liturgical Christian brothers and sisters. And for good cause! The basic components of Lent (prayer, fasting, and self-denial) are sound spiritual disciplines outlined multiple times in scripture. These practices are designed to help us realize the virtue of humility, bringing us closer to God. This is the ultimate purpose of Lent: To bring us spiritually closer to God so that we may more fully celebrate the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.
We pray all year. We pray together in church and we pray individually during the course of our lives. But sadly, for many of us, prayer becomes an afterthought. We end up praying when our backs are pressed against the wall and we find ourselves in undesirable situations. Scripture teaches us to pray without ceasing. So the first spiritual discipline of Lent is an increased focus on prayer.
Lent is the ideal time to establish a healthy prayer life, making prayer the center of your day. Start your day with a prayer, asking God to bless and guide you through the hours ahead. Pause at lunchtime, asking God to help you keep on the divine path. Reflect at bedtime, recognizing and confessing your shortcomings, thanking God for the good things of the day, and asking God’s protection as you sleep. Journal your prayers: Use pen and paper to jot down the things you’re thankful for, the things you worry about, and the people who mean the most to you. In doing so, you’re communicating the thoughts of your heart with the divine! Let prayer be your central focus during Lent.
Francis of Assisi, who made it his life’s effort to teach others to live holy lives, would occasionally sprinkle ashes on his food. He did this to remind himself that his desire for God must always be greater than his appetite for whatever comes out of the kitchen. Gluttony is a sin of excess and greed; fasting helps us realign our priorities to the spiritual. Many Christians, during Lent, avoid overly heavy meals. Many avoid meat on Fridays, a few avoid meat during the entire season of Lent. Of course we need food to survive, but most of us typically eat far more than what is required for survival. Fasting – consuming only what is necessary for our health – is a spiritual practice that reminds us of our dependence on God’s provision. It humbles us and opens us to seeing all the other ways we hoard and squander the resources God makes available to us. It increases our thankfulness for what God has provided, and helps us to more clearly see the needs of others. Many Christians fast during Lent as a time to focus on the needs of the soul rather than the desires of the belly.
A very common question people ask during Lent: “What have you given up this year?” Our lives, even when they seem very modest, are full of extravagance and luxuries. We all have our indulgences – non-necessary conveniences that bring us comfort and feelings of satisfaction. The Lenten practice of self-denial encourages us to give up those luxuries for the sake of humility and devotion. So what’s your indulgence of choice? Common examples include chocolate, ice cream, soda, smoking, television, Facebook, junk food, hot water, caffeine, driving (when your destination is within walking distance), etc. During Lent, when you feel the urge to indulge in your favorite of life’s conveniences, use that time of temptation to instead turn your attention to God. Jesus once told his disciples if they wanted to follow him they must first deny themselves. In that same spirit, we likewise deny ourselves the luxuries and pleasures of our comfortable lives during Lent. And in doing so, we will certainly find ourselves more thankful, genuine, and humble – attributes of a holy life.
However you decide to honor Lent, I pray you find it a time of spiritual renewal and devotion – a time bringing you closer to God!
May the virtue of humility open your eyes more fully to the divine this Lent.