Lent is a season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the Saturday before Easter. The forty days of Lent symbolize the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Resurrection. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, sometimes choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others.
Sundays in Lent are not counted in the forty days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter” and the solemn and reverent spirit of Lent is tempered with joyful anticipation of the Resurrection. The Church adapted the use of ashes to mark the beginning of the season of Lent, when we remember our mortality and mourn for our sins. These ashes are made from last year’s palm branches. By using palms from Palm Sunday, it is a reminder that we must not only rejoice of Jesus’ coming but also acknowledge the fact that our sin made it necessary for him to die.
The season of Lent is about going back home to a gracious and merciful God. But in order to get there, we first have to come to terms with the path that takes us back. That path is the way of repentance – the way of honestly admitting our failures and turning our lives over, completely, to the One who alone has the power to heal us.
Lent is a dedicated time of truth telling. It is a time when we rally around the truth of our humanity, the truth of our pain, the truth of our sin and the truth of God’s great promise of redemption. In the midst of looking at the pain and humanity, we are often tempted to feel hopeless. But there is actually great hope in admitting our mortality and our brokenness because then we finally lay aside our sin management program long enough to allow God to be God.
Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves for being human. The practice of Lent is about peeling away layers of insulation and anesthesia and numbing and avoidance which keep us from the truth of God’s promises. Lent is about looking at our lives through the lens of the light of Christ.
My Ash Wednesday was one of the worst days of my life. There was death all around. And my Lenten journey back to life was painful and filled with hourly repentance. I wasn’t looking for it, it really didn’t want it. But when I got desperate, God opened my eyes to what was standing in the way of surrender. The intent of the journey of Lent is not simply for us to remember the last days of Jesus, but rather to take us deeper into our own desire to sense of the spirit of Jesus. In my life, Lent – year, after year, after year – teaches me the ways that giving things up allows me to be prepared for the things that are truly important.