Written by Rev. Todd A. Peperkorn, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Rocklin, California.
Lent can be a really strange time, both for the Christian and the
non-Christian. For the non-Christian, it is a time when there is all
kinds of religious “stuff” going on that nobody can really explain.
Unless you are Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Eastern Orthodox, in all
likelihood Lent is as much a mystery to you as it is to the
non-Christian. Let me try to take some of the mystery out of Lent for
the non-believer, and put some mystery back in for the Christian.
Lent (which basically means “spring”) is a time when Christians all
over the world prepare for Jesus Christ’s resurrection of the dead. It
starts on Ash Wednesday, which is 47 days before Easter. You may
recognize hearing the term “40 days of Lent”. This is because the
Sundays are not considered a part of Lent. Historically, there are three
practices associated with Lent: Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving or
works of mercy. It is a time when Christians mourn over their sin
(called repentance) and learn again to trust in their Savior, Jesus
Christ. Just like you don’t only go to a doctor once, in the same way a
Christian can benefit from a “checkup” on their faith, to remind them
who they are as baptized children of God.
In connection with
this, Lent can be a time of great focus for the Christian. Our culture
is inundated with inputs. But in order to focus more on one thing, one
must also learn to focus less on other things. In our secular culture,
we can see this with the rise of minimalism in everything from apps on
our phone to architectural design to how we lay out our kitchens. Great
design leads to simplicity, not complexity. And because our lives are
increasingly complex, something has to change in order for us to get out
of the continual spin cycle of life. While these ideas are often held
up as Buddist in our day, they really belong to the Christian tradition
just as much.
In Christian terms, this is really why we “give
up” things for Lent. Roman Catholics have historically done this the
most, but other Christian traditions are learning to embrace it as well.
By giving up something that is a regular part of your life, this allows
you to focus more on one thing. For the Christian, that one thing is
Jesus Christ, who gave up everything for us, even life itself. So Lent
can become a time of beautiful simplicity, hearing again the words of
the Bible, and coming to God in repentant joy for what He has done for
Now some Christian traditions have largely rejected these
practices as being too “Roman Catholic” or just plain weird or that
giving things up for Lent really amounted to works righteousness. For a
Lutheran, them’s fightin’ words!
It is possible that practices
such as fasting or prayer or acts of charity might lead to works
righteousness, or trying to get to heaven by what we do, rather than by
what we believe. If I do things these in order to show off how good a
Christian I am, then they really are of no benefit to me or anyone else.
This is why in the historic Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Jesus starts each section like this:
“…when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the
hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be
praised by others.” (Matthew 6:2 ESV)
“And when you pray, you
must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the
synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.”
(Matthew 6:5 ESV)
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty
phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for
their many words.” (Matthew 6:7 ESV)
In each of these cases,
Jesus exhorts us not to do these things as a show. There is no room in
the Christian faith for works righteousness. But Jesus does assume that
the Christian will be doing these things.
The greatest danger
today lies in rejecting these ancient practices of prayer, fasting and
almsgiving, because we think we know better than thousands of years of
Christian and pre-Christian history. American culture is much more
inclined to overindulgence and entitlement than we are to works
righteousness. At the risk of being labeled a “closet catholic,” I’m
going to go out on a limb and say that for most of us, we could use a
little less indulgence, and a little more discipline in our lives.
So I would like to issue a challenge to my Christian and non-Christian
friends alike this Lent. Try focusing more by doing less. Don’t take the
second helping. Drink less. Give your eyes a break from the glowing
rectangles. Pray more. Give to those in need. By doing less, you may
find that your focus sharpens and you can see more clearly. For the
Christian, that means focusing on the One who gave His life as a ransom
for the whole world. That seems like a pretty good focus to me.