This year on Wednesday, March, 6, the faithful among Jesus’ followers in liturgical traditions will gather for Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent, a period of 40 days concluding on Holy Saturday, the day before Resurrection Sunday (aka, Easter). It is called Ash Wednesday because ashes are used to write the shape of the cross on the foreheads of the devoted. For Roman Catholics, the ashes are from the palm leaves from the past year’s Palm Sunday. Being from a non-liturgical tradition (Baptist), I have typically not paid that much attention to these details of Lent. In my preaching ministry, however, I often spend several weeks in the build-up to Resurrection Sunday focusing on the cross of Christ, sometimes including a series on the Seven Sayings from the Cross. We also hold a Good Friday service each year during Holy Week, the week before Resurrection Sunday.
Lent is worth a second look for non-liturgical Christians. The Lenten season is an extended period of personal spiritual review, of acts of private devotion, and of a focus on serving others. Since I am looking on this from the outside, I find little to criticize in such spiritual disciplines. Examining our hearts before God, turning aside from our busy and often self-serving lives to spend additional times in prayer and thoughtful reading, and taking time to serve others in Jesus’ name are always beneficial. I suspect that focusing on these for 40 days can have a valuable effect on the next 325 days in the year until the following Ash Wednesday.
Fasting is also practiced during Lent. Nowadays, even liturgical Christians only call for a fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In ancient times, partial fasting lasted three weeks in Rome and up to seven weeks in Eastern churches, eating only one limited meal a day during those weeks. Now, liturgical Christians often “fast” from something they enjoy during the season—maybe pizza, a favorite television program or TV altogether, or chocolate [It doesn’t seem to be all that devoted to me to give up broccoli for Lent]. Again, we non-liturgical Christians might be so afraid of appearing to try to earn our salvation that we miss the spiritual value of self-denial.
As I see it, a scheduled time of intentional focus on the grace and goodness of God in Christ and of my need for what only Christ can do for my human spiritual brokenness is a very good thing. Paul speaks of the training of the athlete as an appropriate comparison for spiritual discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). He says, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27, ESV). Lent is the spiritual opportunity to “discipline my body and keep it under control” by self-imposed limitations on personal freedom. It is an opportunity to enter a season of preparation, so that we can better “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1, ESV). I am praying about how I might learn from our historical and liturgical family in Christ.