Beginning about six weeks before Easter, Lent is a time the Church has traditionally set aside for prayer, fasting, and reflection to prepare for our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent has always been part of my personal practice of faith and, as an Episcopalian, it has been observed for centuries by the tradition in which I practice that faith. But I recently learned how much the practices of Lent have changed throughout history.
Scholars are unclear on when exactly the practice of Lent began, but sometime in the ancient days of the Church, followers of Christ began to observe periods of fasting leading up to Easter. As requirements for fasting began to relax over the years, new practices emerged – such as the idea of personal sacrifice or “giving up” something for the season.
During the Protestant Reformation, a number of Christians gave up the practice of Lent entirely. Their view was that it placed too much emphasis on our sinfulness, as well as ritual methods of overcoming our broken nature (through confession, fasting and other acts of penitence). They felt that wonder of God’s grace, which is freely given, had become obscured by acts aimed at “earning” grace.
Others pointed to Matthew 6, where Jesus clearly instructs his disciples not to fast like the hypocrites who make the practice of their faith into a public display. These apologists felt Lenten disciplines had no merit in and of themselves, but rather served as a means of putting faith on display—not what God calls us to do.
I understand the arguments against Lenten disciplines, and they do serve as reminders to me about what Lent is and is not. But I remain thankful that my tradition observes the Lenten season and that my home church is committed to set it aside as a sacred time.
For me Lent is an invitation to introspection, through which I become all the more grateful for the gift of grace that we celebrate at Easter. Without some degree of Lenten discipline to remind me of how broken I am, I fear that I do not fully appreciate the fullness of the new being I have become in Christ. My practice is not about “earning” grace or impressing others with my piety. Rather it centers on who I am before God, and all the ways that I am privileged to enter into that relationship more fully.
Perhaps you observe Lent in a very traditional way, or perhaps you do not observe it at all. Wherever your tradition and practice take you, I hope that you might find some time in the days ahead to take a deeper look at yourself and dwell on your relationship with the Divine. And in doing so, my prayer is that you may truly understand the depth of the love with which God views every one of us.
The Rev. Amy Long is an associate priest at Grace Episcopal Church, Hutchinson.