Church calendar reflections: Lent

I like to think of myself as an organized person, well maybe more than organized. Perhaps fixated and obsessed would be more accurate. Accordingly, I like my calendar. No, I need my calendar. My life is intimately connected to my calendar, and I have come to realize that the reason my date book is so critical to me is because it’s about me; my life, my plans, my business… me.

There is another calendar however, the Church Calendar. The primary difference between my calendar and the Church Calendar is that the Church Calendar is not organized around me. It is organized around significant events in the life of Jesus Christ. The word Lent comes from the Anglo/Saxon word lencten meaning spring, as in the season of the year. But the word took on more significant meaning when the noun became a verb, when spring as a season of the year became the church’s practice of remembering the last six weeks of Jesus’ life and passion on the way to celebrating His resurrection. In the western Christian tradition, this six week, 40-day period (Monday-Saturday) of fasting and prayer is observed from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday prior to Easter Sunday. These 40 days commemorate and, in a sense, re-enact Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his ministry. So, Lent is a time for fasting and preparation anticipating God’s work in and through our lives.

By the second century, the church was already observing the time prior to Easter as a period of fasting and prayer. Because Easter was the appointed time for baptisms in the early church, the time leading up to Easter became a time for new believers to pray and prepare themselves for entering their new life in Christ, for becoming a part of His church.

Like many reading this column, I was raised in a non-liturgical church. Unlike Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodist and other mainline churches, my church did not observe Lent. I had no clue what the Church Calendar was or why anyone would observe it. It took me a while to figure out why this was so. Simply put, part of my tradition’s distinctive was that we were not mainline or liturgical and to practice Lent was tantamount to being one of them. We were not just theologically distinct from other churches we were also historically and culturally distinct from them. We occupied our own sub-culture of faith and we had no intentions of practicing anything that would associate us with them.

The sad thing is we were simultaneously distancing ourselves from our larger Christian heritage, from the practices and symbols that commemorated the powerful story of Jesus’ passion and the opportunity to take six weeks and enter into that story through prayer and fasting. I know Lent is not in the Bible, but neither are Christmas and Easter, and we practice them. Taking six weeks to shift my focus from my calendar and life to the life of Jesus Christ can’t be a bad thing, even if those other people do it too.