‘Ash Wednesday’ marks the beginning of 40 days of Lent. The practice began very early in Christian Church history as a shorter three day period of fasting for personal reflection and penance as Easter approached. Later in the 600AD period it was stretched to 40 days – probably modelled on Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his public ministry. Throughout my childhood and teenage years Lent was observed in the Anglican School I attended and continues to be very much part of Anglican and Catholic liturgical practice today.
As I’ve grown older I’ve questioned the value and ultimate purpose of this tradition; is it merely a self-imposed religious burden or an anointed gift from God? I’m sure God will bless any person who comes to Him with a humble heart whether observing Lent or not. I recall as a teenager/young adult occasions when I tried to enter into the meaning of Lent and ‘give up something I liked’ for 40 days. I can’t remember the impact on my spiritual life but I suspect it reinforced an understanding of God who is to be revered and feared more than embraced and loved. Furthermore it drew attention yet again to my identity as a sinner who has to try and earn his way into the presence of almighty God if I can only be disciplined, good, and obedient enough. That’s why I’ve concluded that it’s a religious act better left in Egypt than carried into the Promised Land.
Egyptian Christianity focuses on our present identity as slaves to sin, God forgiving us through the blood of the lamb/Jesus on the Cross, and one day being free when we get to heaven. Until then we have ‘salvation through Jesus’ in terms of being forgiven and saved from hell; our focus on earth being to keep the Ten Commandments and live good Christian lives. God is still distant, Jesus is a great role model and example, and the Bible is the handbook outlining God’s expectations, standards and rules. The Christian experience is one of attendance at church, bible study, serving others, and being careful not to be influenced by the wayward misguided thoughts and lifestyles of non-believers. Many Christians who live in this camp are sincere, earnest, hard-working, and faithful believers who’ve never been told that heaven begins now and freedom is closer than they know.
The irony is that it’s precisely because of what Jesus accomplished on the Cross and resurrection that we don’t need to add our personal sacrificial touches to earn acceptance (sacrifice as a fruit of love is what we’re called to). Jesus’ stunning laying down His life crucified reconciles us to God and draws us into His embrace. There’s nothing more we can add to earn reconciliation; our response is to say ‘thank you’ and walk into the Father’s outstretched arms. Amazing grace at work reaching into the human heart reconciling one who was lost and inviting them into a new life they never dreamed possible. Imagine if instead of 40 days of Lent we celebrated a Christian version of 40 days of Valentines? God’s outrageous love poured out in random acts of kindness by those who profess to follow Jesus. Imagine 40 days of celebration, healing, and festivities declaring the revelation of what has been made possible to all with such freedom and passion! What image of God would be shared with the world and how might they respond to love and joy, generosity and laughter?
Of course times of reflection and a sober appreciation of Jesus’ sacrifice are necessary. The trouble is most of the people I meet have overdosed on that message and have hardly tasted and seen the depth and breadth of His love offered to every living soul. I encourage you to celebrate Lent from the Promised Land perspective – enter into your relationship with God your Father with joy and do something that will foster and nurture your relationship. Maybe it’s reading the bible more often, perhaps it’s daring to participate in worship with greater passion, attending a teaching session or prayer time that you don’t normally venture out to. You could be risky and ask him to give you opportunities to share your relationship with him with a friend. There are many creative ways to take responsibility for building and exercising your faith from the inside out. Just do it with a smile and with joy and if you want to eat fish on Friday that’s fine :-).