I don’t feel qualified to answer this. I didn’t grow up in a church that observed Lent and I don’t have a degree in Biblical studies or Old Testament or New Testament or divinity or anything similar. As a kid, the most notice I generally had to Easter’s arrival was Palm Sunday. I heard reference to Lent but was under the impression that Catholic people observed it, and no others. Ash Wednesday was a Catholic observance; Mardi Gras was for New Orleans and a few predominantly Catholic countries.
As a high schooler, I had tried to observe Holy Week, in that I reminded myself it was Holy Week, read Scripture passages set during the week before Christ’s crucifixion, and wore black on Good Friday. This limited but well-meaning personal observance sparked during the spring break of my junior year. I was on a school trip to Madrid when I, two friends, and a chaperone observed a parade for “Holy Thursday”. Candles, marchers in hoods resembling KKK hoods, rugby-built men carrying a platform on their shoulders strewn with red roses, depicting Christ in a crimson robe and wearing a crown of thorns. The platform which followed carried a much larger, more elaborate representation of Christ’s mother, with painted tears, gold filigree crown, a green veil, and white roses placed around her robe. People rushed to this one to try to touch a petal, her robe, the platform itself.
Although I disagreed with the elaborate recognition of Mary in contrast to the stern, strained reaction to Jesus (although, it might have been appropriate considering that the procession mimicked Christ’s walk from Gethsemane to his trial), the observance and event made a deep impression on me. I recognized that Holy Week is honored and kept by Christians worldwide, and I wished to better observe it as well. I didn’t hear “Maundy Thursday” until I started working at the Christian publishing company where I work now.
So what is Lent? As best I understand, Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Good Friday. It mimics Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness and begins with Ash Wednesday, on which we remember that we are sinful people with no hope of redemption outside of Christ. That’s why people (not just Catholic people) get ashes put on their forehead in the shape of a cross, to remind us that we are dust, that we came from ashes and will likewise return to them. That’s what Lent is designed for, to remind us how miraculous and needed and holy and generous Easter is. Lent also helps us consider what it must have been like to be Jesus, every step on his journey to Jerusalem taking him closer to false accusation, torture, abandonment, and death. We know Easter will come, just as Jesus knew it, but that doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t incredibly hard.
Traditionally, people give up something—like sweets or social media—during Lent for a similar reason. To make the journey harder. To simplify your life so you can appreciate what you have year round. To remind us of Christ’s struggle to remain sinless in the wilderness, when he fasted and prayed. You’re supposed to make a change that costs something, and most people fast from something (obstain from something), but others add something. I’ve done both.
In the four years since I started working here, I have observed this aspect of Lent 3 times. One year I fasted from food every Wednesday. One year I got up early and watched a new video in a devotional series every morning. One year I gave up sweets except on Sundays. (Traditionally, Christians do not fast on Sundays because Sundays are the days set apart to remember Christ’s resurrection, which freed Christians from the hopelessness of sinful life.)
I noticed that the Lent I got up early to watch the devotional videos, my life didn’t become simpler as it was meant to. I enjoyed the practice, the discipline, and the videos themselves. But I was mostly lying in bed listening to other people worship and pray, trying not to doze off again. The videos become something else on my to-do list, and the mental weight of that left my insides more jangled than before. And jangled is not the point of Lent. Not as I understand it.
Why Lent? Because my heart needs to get quiet. I need to reach out for God, lean on God, rest in God, in an organized way. I used to be incredibly disciplined and focused in more-or-less every area of my life. Now, not so much. I was also very pharisaic in those days, exerting control over everything possible to help me cope with my many anxieties. So I want to recapture the good of my once prayer life—the devotion, the discipline—without also lashing in the bad—lack of understanding, inability to let go of control. But adding a new item to the list is the last thing I need.
This year, Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day. It’s weird in the sense that a lot of people will be fasting from sweets or carbonated beverages on Valentine’s Day, a day hyper focused on both. Also, it’s a day hyper focused on romantic love. But in the sense of this being a day devoted to celebrating love more broadly, Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to celebrate Ash Wednesday and to begin simplifying and resetting our lives. I’m picturing couples at quiet dinners, dressed up, leaning toward one another with ashes on their foreheads. I’m imagining people with roses in vases, dancing to music and cleaning out their closets. I’m picturing people nibbling on chocolate as they clean off their desks and lay their Bibles in the center. I see people circling April Fool’s Day on the calendar and writing “Easter” inside.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, only Christ’s love for us can offer us forgiveness and hope. But for those of us who want to be in God’s community, who believe Jesus is both human and God, who have promised Jesus they will try to follow his example, Lent is a great time to reset our perspectives and lifestyles and motivations. It’s 40 days to make a change, to build your life differently, to learn to pray constantly. I hope the Lent can be that for you.
Here are a few ideas if you want to observe Lent this year but are nervous because it literally starts tomorrow:
-Do something creative every day while praying. Color, knit, fold paper swans, write new a poem one stanza at a time.
-Make Saturdays and Sundays social media free.
-Plan a special trip to help you get away, rest, and reconnect with God.
-Commit to studying a new psalm every day.
-Sit in a different place at church every week.
-Meet with friends every Tuesday to journal about Bible passages and write prayers.
-Fast from food once a week to remind you to rely on God for sustenance.
-Memorize one new Bible verse every week.
-Turn off your radio during your commute. Pray for strangers you see nearby or worship with just your own voice.
-Attend a different worship service during Lent than your usual.
-Pick a local organization to bless in a different way each week. (If you aren’t sure how, call their offices to ask for suggestions.)
-Fast from complaining, gossip, or another language-oriented sin.
-Bless each of your neighbors with a meal, yard work, or good conversation.
-Only read books by authors of a gender, race, or other identity not like your own.
-Send one encouraging message every day to someone who won’t expect it.