On Wednesday, the church entered the season of Lent. We mark that day as Ash Wednesday, because we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross in ashes.
Lent is a 40–day–long season. Forty is one of those important symbolic numbers in the Bible. In the flood, it rained for 40 days and nights. Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness before entering the promised land. Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, preparing for his ministry. The symbolic value of 40 is that it marks a long time … long enough to accomplish the purpose of the event. Forty days is long enough to accomplish the work of Lent.
However, if you were to count the days on a calendar, you’d find that there are actually 46 days in Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. That’s because the church doesn’t count the Sundays that fall in this season as part of the 40 days. The church has always understood Sunday to be the day of resurrection. Sunday is not a day of mourning and repentance. Sunday is intended to be a day of feasting and celebration, a day of being nourished with God’s goodness.
When Lent was first celebrated, the intention was that the faithful would use the weekdays for repentance and fasting. It was intended to be a daily walk with God, journeying more deeply to the heart of our faith. On Sundays, people would be given a break from their daily penitential walk. Sunday was a day celebrate God’s goodness, to rest in the warmth of God’s grace, and to feast on God’s abundance.
Nowadays, that pattern has changed. People pay less attention to the Lenten discipline in their day–to–day lives during the week. Sundays have become the focus of Lenten devotion for many people.
So what is the purpose of Lent? In the early church, Lent was the culmination of a time of preparing for baptism. During Lent, candidates for baptism would examine themselves, and be examined by others, as to their understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ. For those who had already been baptized, it was a time to make a fresh commitment to walking in the way of Jesus.
That’s why we “give something up for Lent”. It’s not just about giving up something that isn’t good for you anyway, like chocolate or social media. We give something up as a way of clearing the clutter in our lives so that we are more able to focus on God’s love in our lives.
As people who have been baptized, we are part of the community of Christ. We are a new people who belong not to this world, but to God.
As people who belong to God, we strive to honour God’s values in our world. We cherish justice, peace, reconciliation and wholeness. We seek to live in such a way as to honour God in all our dealings. As we have been blessed, so we bless others. As we have been healed, so we touch other lives as gently as we can. As we have been included by God’s grace in a community of hope and reconciliation, so we reach out across all the barriers which keep us apart. We live in the world as people who embody God’s gospel purposes with all of God’s beloved children.
In this context, repentance has to do with the renewal of the heart. That word repentance is often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean to feel really really sorry for what we’ve done wrong. Repentance is about renewing our commitment to God’s ways in the world.
Let me quote former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams: “Repentance happens when you suddenly see the abundance of God’s love and generosity in someone else and you come to the realization that you must change. Not only must you, you want to.”
We repent and learn to listen in a new way for the whisper of God in our lives and in our world. We are spiritual beings. To nourish our spiritual life is as important to us as food and water are for nourishing our physical life. God comes to us in countless ways, again and again, whispering a word of life into our lives, nudging us to see things from a new perspective, prodding us to be renewed in our hearts.
This vital truth is central to all the great religions of the world. They all call us to wholeness and holiness. They all whisper to us of renewal and hope.
In the church, Lent is a time in which Christians journey to the heart of our faith. We respond to God’s call to come home. We take small, faltering steps as we yield ourselves to God’s healing embrace. We clear the clutter in our lives and make more space for God’s spirit to touch us and heal us and lead us into lives of greater wholeness.
So, while Lent is a serious and solemn moment in our lives, it need not be gloomy or depressing. We are being called home. We are being graciously invited to return to the heart of God. We are being embraced by God’s love. We are being healed by God’s insistent Spirit — healed in our personal lives and healed in our communities. We are clearing the clutter—spring cleaning, if you will, in our lives and hearts.
So come again on this journey to the heart of our faith. Come, follow the one who promises us that above all else, we will find rest and healing.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook