I grew up an Evangelical Christian, though thankfully within churches that provided a broader worldview than strict fundamentalism. Although I don’t recall hearing any explicit anti-liturgical speeches from the pulpit, there was a below-the-surface distrust of liturgical traditions as well as a widespread belief that Catholics weren’t really Christians (though I never understood that). The only parts of the church calendar we followed were Christmas (we also tossed around the word Advent occasionally while not actually practicing it) and Easter.
As I learned more about the founding of evangelical movements in the United States, I came to understand that this separateness – this stubborn individualism – developed, in part, to bring Christianity into the hands and hearts of the masses. I think that’s a good thing. But I also think that throughout the complex and tangled history of Christian movements, we’ve had a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As an adult now with a wider view of Christian tradition, I see value in the familiarity and routine the church calendar provides. As Advent left its restorative mark on the Christmas season for me last year, I anticipate that Lent, too, can provide opportunity for reflection and transformation. I’ve participated in it half-heartedly for several years, but I’m ready to make a commitment to it practically and spiritually.
Lent is a season of repentance and self-denial leading up to the observance of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is intended to remind us of Christ’s grandiose and restorative act of self-sacrifice on the cross juxtaposed against our own human frailty. We reflect somberly on our fallen state to amplify the grace that arrives daily with the knowledge that Christ is risen indeed.
Lent, it seems to me, is not practiced well if one only considers what one is giving up. My high school friends from liturgical traditions would give up soda or french fries every year, but could never explain to me the significance of the act. I scoffed at their ignorance when I should have scoffed at my own.
Giving something up, it turns out, is about penitence: it’s not just a project in self control but a strict disciplinary action taken against ourselves, a reminder that we are rowdy and undisciplined by nature.
The vital next step is to realize that giving up bad habits clears up space for spiritual reflection. I’m terrible at meditating on the character of God, on seeing myself as someone in relationship to and with the Divine. It wasn’t always that way; I spent a long time wanting my old spiritual awareness back instead of recognizing that I could progress toward a new and better spiritual life. I’m ready for progress.
This Lenten season, I’m giving up rewarding myself with non-essentials (clothes, books, makeup, etc.) and taking on better spiritual practice. I intend to read more theology, pray more, and intentionally seek out ways to practice kindness and self-sacrifice. I’m replacing bad habits with good ones. I’m filling the void instead of wallowing in it. I recognize my shortcomings and repent from them more fully, I think, when I compare them to the vibrant spiritual life I could live instead.
I encourage you to meditate and reflect on your life in relationship with Christ as you trudge through these final days of winter, as you look forward to the rebirth and joy that arrives with spring.