Growing up Catholic, I celebrated Lent every year. I began by going to church on Ash Wednesday and getting the sign of the cross placed in ashes on my forehead. I would wear this as a symbol, proud of my Christian heritage. Then I would give up something for Lent. I was taught that Lent meant to give up something for forty days in observance of what Christ did on the cross. But one ordinary day in junior high school, my whole thought process changed.
One of our teachers, a nun, taught us that the real meaning of Lent was not about sacrifice. Rather, there had been a historical disease that wiped out all the cattle. To keep the cattle clean, the people had to abstain from meat for 40 days. This is the reason why Catholics give up meat on Fridays. When I heard this, I was confused. What else didn't I know about my own faith?
Because of Sister Janice's explanation, I began to explore the tenets of the Catholic faith. I had more questions than I had answers. I went to priests, my grandmother who was a practicing Catholic, and others, but no one had a good answer. It was then that the Lord tugged at my heart, and I began to get more serious about my faith. When I became a born-again Christian at the age of eighteen, I began to take faith more seriously. But I never forgot Sister Janice's words. For many years I've neglected Lent because I associated it with only the Catholic tradition. However, I have discovered that Lent is a tradition all Christians can practice.
Lent is the religious observance of the forty days before Jesus’ death and resurrection. These were the moments within his public ministry, beginning with the temptation from Satan. It was during this time that Jesus clung to the Father and performed many miracles and helped those around him.
Lent can be a season people avoid because it means taking our faith more seriously, or it can be a great time of spiritual growth. The choice is ours. As I've matured in the faith, I've learned to take Lent more seriously throughout the years.
Here are some ways I've learned the true meaning of Lent:
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1. Lent Means Sacrifice
Whether Sister Janice was correct or not, Lent is the time when we can truly learn sacrifice. We don't have to necessarily give up something for forty days. However, it will allow us to cling to Jesus during this time if we choose to do so. He honors whatever efforts we make toward a more intimate relationship with him. Sacrifice can also mean a sacrifice of time, extra money, or resources. Do some research and find what your community needs. If Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, we can sacrifice for forty days too. Discover if there are any nonprofit organizations, churches, or other places where you can serve around your area.
Though it may be difficult to find time in an overpacked schedule, time might be one of the greatest ways we can show sacrifice. When we give up something that we want to do in exchange for helping serve our community, God is honored. We also become closer to God because we understand his ministry on earth. When we sacrifice our time, we become more like Jesus because we become the tangible representation of Christ to others.
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2. Lent Means Service
Jesus met many people during his travels. He met some people who were physically and mentally ill. And he chose to serve them all. Discover ways you can serve others during this time. Perhaps there's a new ministry at church that's lacking volunteers. Even if it's not a ministry you don't feel called to, consider donating your service in places that take you out of your comfort zone and into an intimate relationship with God. Figure out which people you wouldn't normally associate with and serve them. They may be people right next to you in the pew at church, or they may be people who don't think or act the same as you.
When we get out of our comfort zones for Christ, he meets our needs in ways we could never expect. Isaiah 58:6-8 says, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
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3. Lent Means Fasting
Just like Sister Janice had confirmed, people many years ago abstained from meat. Granted, it was because of a disease that would make them ill if they ate the meat, but they still chose a short period of time to fast. Fasting is a spiritual discipline. Yet, it is one of the more difficult faith practices because our society is surrounded by food. Additionally, it is especially difficult to fast when our media surrounds us with commercials for fast food and other delicious products. It's difficult to abstain from a meal when you have family and other people whose meetings and gatherings normally are surrounded by food. But God will honor whatever you can do. Even if you just give up chocolate or desserts for Lent rather than a full meal, God sees what you do. (Seek the advice of a professional in case you are concerned regarding medication or things that need to be taken with a meal.)
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4. Lent Means Love
Above all, Lent means to love others more than yourself. This is a concept much needed in our world today. We are a very individualistic, selfish society. We have become so isolated with the use of our phones that we crave connection and intimacy now more than ever. Yet, people don't reach out and they don't connect with others because of overpacked schedules and an addiction to social media. Because of these things, we miss out on the beauty of community.
Jesus' last moments on earth before his death were spent haing supper with his disciples. Knowing what was before him, he still chose to give thanks to his Father for both the bread and cup. Lent is an opportunity for us to demonstrate love both to people we know and to people we don't know. In what ways can we demonstrate love to people who are strangers? In what ways may we be able to reconcile or make peace with a relationship that might be tumultuous right now? Perhaps we can sacrifice indulgence and replace it with forgiveness. When we exercise forgiveness because of how Christ forgave us, Christ will honor us for our act.
Lent is a tradition that's not well known—or practiced—in many churches. However, Lent can be a great way to increase intimacy both with God and with others. I learned that truly loving God means doing the hard work of spiritual growth. That includes observing Lent and taking my faith more seriously. When I learn to sacrifice, serve others, fast, and love both people I know and people I don't know, I am showing who Christ is to the world.
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Originally published Monday, 12 February 2024.