My introduction to Lent was on a bus in rural North Dakota on the way to school, probably around junior high and probably not the best place to learn the deep truths of the Church and the significance of the liturgical calendar.
As a Baptist teenager, my internal response to my young non-Baptist friend who was denying himself chocolate for forty days was to think, “Wow, just another work of the flesh! Thankfully, I know salvation is by grace alone.” I was a pretentious, but well-read, Baptist for my age. My second thought was worse, “I can totally out-sacrifice my non-Baptist friend. I mean, I’m Baptist; we are better at all things religious – especially suffering.”
As Baptists, these seem to be the two unfortunate extremes of our experience with Lent. We either deny the value of the Church calendar and view these practices with self-righteous skepticism, or we try to “out-Lent” our more liturgical brothers and sisters by demonstrating that we can suffer way more than they could ever imagine. But the journey of Lent is not about working our way to righteousness, and it certainly is more than simple self-sacrifice. Lent is a journey of preparation that begins with a divine blessing and finds fulfillment in the joy of the resurrected life.
The forty days of Lent are reminiscent of the forty days of fasting and temptation that Jesus endured at the start of His ministry (Matthew 4:1–11). Immediately preceding the temptation, however, are these words: “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.’” It is this divine blessing that begins the journey of fasting for Jesus, and likewise this divine blessing begins the journey of Lent for the Christian pilgrim. It is not a means to become righteous or loved by God; rather it flows from and is made possible by this divine proclamation.
With the realization of God’s love firmly in mind, the pilgrim on the journey of Lent uses this time as an opportunity to focus their mind, body, and spirit on the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the common practice of fasting or self-denial is not the focus of Lent, but rather it is a useful tool to help focus the pilgrim on Jesus’s sacrifice and bringing them to more fully appreciate and participate in the new life provided through His resurrection. The journey of Lent, therefore, is bookended with these two divine blessings: the realizations that we are children of our Heavenly Father and the power of the resurrection enabling us to enter fully into the resurrected life of the Kingdom.
Three decades after my introduction to Lent, I continue to learn more about Lent and the importance of the Church calendar. Most recently this was in a chance encounter with a friend who recommended a fantastic book, Theology of the Ordinary. This book led to a conversation with the author, Julie Canlis. This conversation led to another book by her husband, Matt Canlis; that book, Backyard Pilgrim, is itself a journey through the forty days of Lent. The beauty of this short, practical book is that it serves as a guide not only through biblical texts, which it does beautifully, but through your own neighborhood, recognizing God’s presence and mission there and inviting you to more fully participate in it. Whether or not you use this guide, I would encourage you to journey through Lent this year beginning with the recognition of the divine blessing that you are loved by your heavenly Father and journeying toward a deeper appreciation and participation in the resurrected life.