Is lent a journey? Is it something we need to suffer through in order to be good Christians? Is it simply a time of year, or just a period of time before Easter Sunday? Is it a second chance to succeed at the diet we abandoned in January? I’ve heard people say all of these things and more. Most of us, I think, have thought of lent in these terms at least once. And for many of our family, friends, and even for ourselves we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be doing or feeling during lent.
In the UK we don’t put an emphasis on lent as a society in the way that they do in other countries. Easter is more widely 'celebrated' in the UK, but you'd be forgiven for deducing from advertising that Easter is a time for rabbits, chocolate, roast lamb, and Jesus if you’re religious. We don’t see much, if anything, about lent in the media, on television, or in shops. We might see hot cross buns and daffodils for sale, but how about pre-packaged ashes? Where are the fasting friendly freezer aisles? Where can we buy ‘greater spiritual and bodily devotion’ kits? Thankfully none of these are actually available to us! The truth is that we can’t buy our way into lent in the way we can with other religious celebrations. Lent defies commercialism because at its heart is a call to denial, and denial doesn’t sell. Sure, 30 day juice cleanses and extreme workout programs are very commercially successful at the moment, but that’s because they are selling an end result. Lent is not about the end result, or at least it shouldn’t be.
In my own tradition of the Scottish Episcopal Church we mark lent through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. All three have an element of denial to them, necessitating that we give up some of our comfort, time, or security, and even face up to things that we’ve been putting off. More time in prayer and study might lead to us to uncomfortable truths, or force us to think about things we’d rather avoid. After all this we might feel closer to God, more spiritually fulfilled, more sure in our faith. Or we might not. Part of lenten obedience is that we don’t go into it knowing what to expect. In fact, we may be brought to the realization that our bodies are weak, that we rely on food and comfort for far more than sustenance and pleasure; that we use 'things' to sustain us emotionally and spiritually. We might find out that the reason we don’t pray often isn’t because of a lack of time, but because we find it difficult. We might discover that the reason we don’t read the Bible enough is because its contents convict us and make us feel ashamed.These aren’t aspirational things to discover. The truth about ourselves so often isn’t aspirational. Who could market this experience? Somewhere in this confusion and difficulty is an important thing to remember about lent – it is so far outside of our appearance focused, ambitious, and capitalist society that it encapsulates the humility of spirit central to lenten obedience. There is nothing here to sell, except the call to endure, as Jesus endured.
Lent for me isn’t a season of delay and expectation, waiting for the big party of Easter. It isn’t about denial in the hope of gain. We go into lent not knowing what we will get out of it, because it is a call to follow God into uncertainty with only trust, and love, to guide us. This isn’t something that we or anyone can buy because the love of God is free to all, and the practice of lent reminds us that even through difficulty it is there, sustaining us.