Not all Christian congregations follow the Christian calendar with its seasons of Advent, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. But nearly all Christian congregations celebrate special days such as Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. Even independent churches and fellowships will provide some way to focus the congregation’s attention on the significance of one of these special days.
However, in most mainline congregations, the preparation for special days is a bit more elaborate. They will begin to prepare to celebrate Christmas and Easter up to five weeks in advance.
In addition, your typical family will revert to tradition to mark and celebrate holidays. What is Thanksgiving without turkey? Or the Fourth of July without firing up the grill?
For centuries, the church has developed its family customs and traditions. These traditions may not be mandated in the Bible, but as a family, we have found these customs beneficial to our spiritual growth.
The season of Lent is one of these Christian family traditions. This year, Lent began on Wednesday and will last through March 30. During Lent, we take 40 days to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning. These 40 days – excluding Sundays if you are counting – are like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness at the start of his ministry. They were marked by fasting, temptation and prayer. We, too, restrict ourselves from something we usually find pleasurable.
It is a 40-day period of repentance by acknowledging our sin and wrongdoing and our need for God’s forgiveness. It is a special time for charitable works, especially as a way of making amends or righting some of the wrongs we have done. And, of course, it is a special time of prayer.
Our Lenten practices don’t impress God or win us any extra points. Rather, they are deliberate acts of spiritual discipline that release us from our own self-centeredness and draw us closer to God and others. Lent is a time of making room in our lives to die to ourselves and to live for Christ.
Lent is a season of living gratitude by saying “no” to me, my desires and leisure, and, instead, treasure because Jesus said “yes” to the cross. As the apostle Paul says, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are all yes in Christ.” We say “no” to some personal pleasures and securities as a way of saying “yes” and identifying ourselves with Christ and to share in the sufferings that he willingly endured for us as he was betrayed, arrested, beaten, publically shamed and hung on a tree.
But what if I fall short of my goals during Lent? What if I should fail to keep to my Lenten plan? What if I slip and fall back into my old destructive ways of living?
Just as I fall into sin at any other time of the year, if I fail to keep the Lenten commitment I made to myself and God, I am still blessed. I grow closer to Christ if I fail because I am then reminded of my overwhelming need for God’s boundless mercy.
The Bible tells us over and over that the Lord is gracious and compassionate; slow to anger and abounding in love. He will never abandon me or you (Nehemiah 9:17).
And so when I fail, that promise puts me right back into the arms of our loving God. I am confronted by the reality of being human. Willpower is not enough to stop my sin and shortcomings. I need God’s power to lift me up and help me start my journey again, whether during Lent or any day of the week.
Maybe you’ve never tried to keep Lent. Maybe it’s not part of your church family’s tradition. But give it a whirl. You may be surprised by how you can grow closer to Christ as you prepare for Easter.
The Rev. Robert Hedges is executive director of Resurrection Power of Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.