What is Lent?
The forty weekdays leading up to Easter are a special time in the Church. In the same way that Advent prepared us for Christmas, Lent prepares us for Easter. Traditionally, Easter (specifically the Easter Vigil) was when most baptisms took place, so the forty days of Lent became a time of fasting and prayer for those preparing to receive the sacrament. Over time, however, many in the Church decided to fast in solidarity with the Catechumens (the new comers/"learners") and it has this penitential nature to this day. The Lenten fast excludes Sundays (i.e. Sundays are always feast days) and has a get-back-to-the-basics feel to it (that's why all the crosses will be veiled throughout Lent, the alleluia will not be said and the vestments will be purple). It is a time to examine your life.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Ash Wednesday is the official start of Lent in the Western Church. In the few centuries after Christ, Ash Wednesday was the time when those who had been excommunicated (usually for a heinous sin), were half-way allowed back into the Church. They would not be restored to fellowship until they had performed very public penances: wearing sackcloth and ashes (a common Old Testament practice). After completing their 40-day penance, they were restored and allowed to take Eucharist at the Easter Vigil. Over time, the entire Church began to wear sackcloth and ashes as a form of very public penance. We've lost the sackcloth but kept the ashes, which are marked on the forehead with the words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"(BCP 265). A sober reminder of the transitory nature of life.
Why deal with Sin?
Dealing with sin is still an important part of what it means to live as a faithful follower of Christ and -- I assure you -- there is a way to deal with sin that does not end in legalism or judgementalism! The fact remains that there are things in my life that are detrimental to my health, both spiritually and physically. Our attachment to these things leads, ultimately, to death: not only a physical and spiritual death, but also the death of relationships. How many of our friendships have been damaged or ended because of envy or anger? Even worse, our attachment to these sins numb our souls to the work of God and we become in danger of "calling evil, good and good, evil" (Isaiah 5:20). If not dealt with, we can become so calloused and self-absorbed that the work of God becomes like "maggots" and "rotteness" to us (Hosea 5:12).
Of course, this list includes acknowledged sins like hateful speech, murder, promiscuous sex and gluttonous over-eating. But, it also includes things that we might never consider: like greed (do I really need that?) or pride (why do I get so angry when someone corrects me?) or jealousy (why does she get to live that life?) or guilt (why is everything I do wrong?). The soul can become attached to entirely too many things. These sins -- even the "fun" ones -- are too big a burden for us to carry and their very weight harms us.
The wonderful thing is that even in our sin, Christ does not hate us nor does he desire to throw us out with the garbage. He stands, gently whispering to us, "come to me that are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). As the Collect for Ash Wednesday begins, "you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent"(BCP, 217). God deeply loves us, for God is infinite love. And it is only through this love that these terrible weights (these sins) are transformed. Sin is not fixed, it is not to be ignored nor is it be be put under denial. The only way to deal with these things is to let them go. Thanks be to God!
Advice for a Holy Lent:
- Do an examination of your conscience. Take thirty minutes in a quiet place and ask yourself two questions: What leads me towards God? What leads me away from God? Use the Ten Commandments (BCP, 350), the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26) or the Baptismal Covenant (BCP 304) as a guide. Please remember, you are doing this in order to let things go, not in order to be thrown out with the garbage. Christ is standing there waiting for us to let these things go; He is practically giddy waiting for you to give them up (Luke 15:22-24)! Ask God to help you.
- Confess your sins to God (BCP 79). If you need counsel or if you are particularly troubled, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) is a perfect help (BCP 446-452). Please know that a Priest is not required to hear your confession in order for you to be forgiven.
- Think about the list of things that leads you away from God. Pick one to abstain from. Pick one small enough that you will adhere to your fasting from it faithfully and do it privately (due to our vanity, public penances should only be sought after wise counsel of a Priest or together as an entire community). Seek to be faithful in the small things before you tackle the big things.
- Think about the things that lead you to God. Pick one to increase during Lent. The same advice applies here for this, too. Pick a small one. The less public, the better.
- Exchange one for the other. For example, if one of your distractions is playing on the computer and one of good things is ministering to lonely folks, then spend the time you would play on the computer by visiting a lonely neighbor or calling an old friend. Another example: if you fast from Soda take the money you would be spending on it and give it to the Church as an offering. Another example: if vanity is a problem, cut your morning-prep time in half and read a chapter from the Bible or spend the time in prayer instead. Get creative and ask for God to help you with this!
- Break it on Sundays. This is highly encouraged! Splurge in thankfulness! Play on your computer till your eyes bleed! Drink Soda until you go into a sugar crash! Watch that Golden Girls or Rosanne marathon in your pajamas after Church! Make yourself as beautiful as possible! Break your fasting without shame!
- Do not tell anyone about it (except, perhaps, for a mentor or a friend who will keep you accountable). Don't let your left-hand know what you're right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3). This is not a contest; this is not a chance to see who is the most "awesomest Christian EVAR". This is a time to allow God to change your heart!
by self-examination and repentance;
by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and
by reading and meditating on God's holy Word (BCP 265)."