Less is More, a Ren­o­varé Lent devo­tion­al, is avail­able in 2020 as a free e‑book (PDF).

More than a decade ago, I gath­ered with a group of local pas­tors, rep­re­sent­ing many denom­i­na­tions, to dis­cuss a wor­ship ser­vice we would offer to gal­va­nize our com­mu­ni­ty around a spe­cif­ic out­reach ini­tia­tive. As we were agree­ing on a date for the wor­ship ser­vice, one of my pas­toral col­leagues remind­ed us that the date we had select­ed was on a Wednes­day night in the sea­son of Lent. He won­dered if that would be an issue for some of the litur­gi­cal churches.

The Senior Pas­tor of the local inde­pen­dent Bap­tist church was quick to respond. Lent? What’s that? Are you talk­ing about the fuzzy stuff I often find in my bel­ly but­ton?” (Lint!)

We had quite a laugh. Yet, his com­ment exposed the gulf that lies between the cur­rent streams of the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion when think­ing about and prac­tic­ing the rhythms of the church year. Iron­i­cal­ly, ten years lat­er, this same Bap­tist church cre­at­ed a dai­ly Advent devo­tion­al for their con­gre­ga­tion in prepa­ra­tion for the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ’s birth. Litur­gi­cal Renew­al? Pos­si­bly. I would sug­gest that many parts of the mod­ern church move­ment, hav­ing sold out to the heresy of new is always bet­ter,” are awak­en­ing to the beau­ty of rit­u­al and the recur­ring rhythms of the church that embed the life of God deeply with­in our souls. The sea­son of Lent is one of those recur­ring rhythms that rit­u­al­izes the beau­ty of God’s life-giv­ing, redemp­tive work in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Though the con­cept of Lent, a sea­son of prepa­ra­tion for the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ’s res­ur­rec­tion, was being artic­u­lat­ed as ear­ly as the sec­ond cen­tu­ry, the litur­gi­cal sea­son of Lent seems to have tak­en form in the 4th cen­tu­ry. The Coun­cil of Nicea (325) called for two gath­er­ings of the syn­ods, one of which was to be held before the forty days of prepa­ra­tion for East­er. By the end of the 4th cen­tu­ry, the forty days of Lent had become inte­grat­ed into the year­ly rhythm of the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty as they pre­pared, pri­mar­i­ly through the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines of fast­ing and prayer, for the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ’s resurrection.

The num­ber forty has both bib­li­cal and spir­i­tu­al sig­nif­i­cance. We recall the forty years of wan­der­ing in the wilder­ness for the peo­ple of Israel. Moses com­muned with God on the top of Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, eat­ing no bread nor drink­ing water, as he inscribed the words of the Ten Com­mand­ments on tablets of stone (Exo­dus 34:28). Eli­jah jour­neyed to Mount Horeb for forty days and forty nights with­out food nor drink (I Kings 19:8). We also remem­ber Jesus being led by the Spir­it, fol­low­ing his bap­tism, into the wilder­ness where he fast­ed for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1 – 2). In each case, whether forty years or forty days, the num­ber forty spoke not only to a span of time but also a span of God’s ongo­ing pres­ence expe­ri­enced in tri­al and temp­ta­tion, through accu­mu­lat­ed wis­dom and insight, and by God’s sus­tain­ing grace and love.

This is the forty day jour­ney of Lent. 

Marked in Days but Lived in Grace

For much of the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty, the forty days begins with Ash Wednes­day (though the East­ern Ortho­dox church counts forty days back from Palm Sun­day) and con­tin­ues through the Holy Week sto­ries of Jesus’ arrest, tri­al, and cru­ci­fix­ion. Sun­days are not includ­ed in the forty days since they are always, even in the sea­son of Lent, a cel­e­bra­tion of Jesus’ resurrection.

The image of Ash Wednes­day, ash­es marked in the sign of the cross on our fore­heads, invites us into the sea­son with the prop­er atti­tude – humil­i­ty. The ash­es recall God’s words to Adam fol­low­ing his trans­gres­sion of the bound­ary around the tree of the knowl­edge of good and evil. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were tak­en; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen­e­sis 3:19)

For all our rail­ing against it, our mor­tal­i­ty is uncov­ered once again. We can­not deny. We are depen­dent on the God who breathed life into the dust of the earth and cre­at­ed human­i­ty. We are not the mas­ters of our uni­verse. We have and will con­tin­ue to fall short of the glo­ry of God (Romans 3:23). In humil­i­ty we are marked with the cross — the sym­bol of vio­lent death and the gate­way to vic­to­ri­ous life, and humbly say to God, In life and death, we are yours.”

In that way, the sea­son of Lent mir­rors our lives in Christ. Con­front­ed by our human­i­ty, our imper­fec­tions, and our bro­ken­ness, we cast our gaze on the one who took on our human­i­ty, loved us even with our imper­fec­tions, and longs for us to be whole. A curi­ous thing hap­pens when we hon­est­ly look with­in, release con­trol, and con­fess our depen­dence. Instead of los­ing pow­er, we open our­selves to new strength. We emp­ty our­selves of self-delu­sion and self-sat­is­fac­tion, and we are filled with new iden­ti­ty, our iden­ti­ty in Christ, and the jour­ney of Lent commences.

For cen­turies, the weeks of Lent were used cat­e­chet­i­cal­ly for those desir­ing to be bap­tized and fol­low Jesus. The basics of the Chris­t­ian faith were taught and expe­ri­enced, lead­ing the new fol­low­er to be bap­tized dur­ing the East­er Vig­il (the wor­ship ser­vice on the Sat­ur­day evening of Holy Week). As the church reen­act­ed the events of Holy Week; the ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sun­day, the gath­er­ing of the dis­ci­ples on Maun­dy Thurs­day around the meal of Passover when Jesus gave the com­mand (Maun­dy is derived from the Latin word for com­mand) to love one anoth­er as I have first loved you” (John 13: 34), the immer­sion into the dark­ness of his death on Good Fri­day (Good only because we know the rest of the sto­ry), the East­er Vig­il ser­vice would begin by light­ing a new fire. Light would pen­e­trate dark­ness. Cap­tur­ing all the bap­tismal images of dark­ness and light, despair and hope, death and life, the ser­vice would ush­er the com­mu­ni­ty and the new fol­low­ers through the mys­tery of God’s redemp­tive work on the cross and the glo­ry of his res­ur­rec­tion on East­er Sunday.

So What About Today?

In my recent read­ing about cre­ativ­i­ty, I have stum­bled over this con­cept in many places — the on/​off pulse of cre­ativ­i­ty.” Those who have stud­ied the cre­ative process are aware that we don’t have the phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and/​or spir­i­tu­al capac­i­ty to be on all the time. For any­thing new or nov­el to come from our minds, our lives, we must press in at times and then back off at oth­er times. In the press­ing in, we dive deeply into the heart of the cre­ative process. In back­ing off, we cre­ate space for, as some may say, the muse, or we would say the Spir­it, to enter. Both are nec­es­sary for some­thing new or nov­el to emerge from our lives.

Maybe we need to con­sid­er Lent as one of those sea­sons of inten­tion­al­ly press­ing in. Cul­tur­al­ly, we are dis­tract­ed by many things. If we do not pay atten­tion to our souls, our capac­i­ty to be open to God’s cre­ative work in our lives is dimin­ished. The sea­son of Lent presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect on the state of our souls before God, the con­tour of our lives with oth­ers, and, above all, the pre­vail­ing promise of Jesus’ res­ur­rect­ed life as it breathes new life, new courage, new hope in us and through us, for the sake of the world.

It is no coin­ci­dence that the Anglo-Sax­on root word for Lent means spring.” Press­ing in to the sea­son of Lent is a cre­ative exer­cise in God’s pos­si­bil­i­ty of re-birth for you, for the neigh­bor, for the whole of creation.

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Originally published December 2012