It all started with a cinnamon roll in the high-school cafeteria. Cherilyn Crowe, then a teen, had attended a Baptist church her whole life. So when a Lutheran friend mentioned something about “giving up” the pastry for Lent, Crowe was intrigued.
“At first I thought it was kind of funny,” Crowe says. “But then I thought, I’m going to do this too… . You wouldn’t think that not getting a cinnamon roll at lunch would be profound. But it was, in some small way, something I could do, some little reminder, to prepare myself too.”
Ask most people about the season of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter, and you’re likely to get one of a few responses. Some believe it’s just about “giving up” something as Crowe did in the beginning. Others believe it’s only for Catholics. And still others think it’s simply an outdated ritual that people follow out of obligation or guilt.
Yet many Protestant Christians across denominational lines are taking a closer look and finding that the Lenten season offers rich opportunities for communion with God and a deeper understanding of the meaning of Easter. And rather than simply stopping with the denying desire aspect of Lent, they’re rediscovering satisfaction for spiritual hunger.
Redeeming the Ritual
William Guice, a Nashville, Tennessee-area teaching pastor and church planter, has been incorporating Lenten practices into his life for a few years. And he intends to introduce them to his new Baptist congregation this spring.
Guice explains that as the ancient church changed and various denominations split off from what had been, “there were a lot of things we left behind, and some of them may have had more value than we realize.
“I don’t ever want anything to become ritual to the point that it’s no longer appreciated,” Guice adds. “But any time people are growing and being discipled and looking at what Jesus went through, that’s a good thing… . We’ve wiped so much of the ritual out of what we do, but in a lot of circles, we’re starting to see a hunger for it.”
In her book The Circle of Seasons, Kimberlee Conway Ireton explains that when Christ-followers observe seasons in the Christian calendar, such as Lent and Easter or Advent and Christmas, we are living out the gospel narrative. She says the repetition of that yearly cycle “provides us with repeated opportunities to live out various aspects of our faith, to see life through the lens of the Christ-story and to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”
Easter is a time for joy and celebration—of Jesus’ resurrected life and the redemption and new life He offers us—but the reason for that celebration started with a journey through darkness, a journey that included death. And so the Lenten season opens with a reminder of our humanity, of our fallen nature and our need for redemption and wholeness.
Back when Mary Carole Crane of Little Rock, Ark., attended a Baptist college, she continued to take part in her Methodist church’s Ash Wednesday service on the first day of Lent. A pastor would repeat words from Genesis 3:19 (“For you are dust, and you will return to dust”) and mark her forehead with ashes in the form of a cross—a reminder of her mortality. Though people on campus suggested that she wipe the smudge off her face, for Crane the ritual was a meaningful part of preparing for Easter.
Today Crane still finds the Lenten season meaningful. She says that “recognizing the darkness beforehand” helps her celebrate the glory of Easter. “It’s about finding a way to realize how weighty all this is,” she adds.
Opportunity Versus Obligation
Throughout the days of fasting that follow Ash Wednesday, Lent continues to remind us of our human desires and our need for God. In the early days of Lent, the church told people what they were to give up, specifically meat. Today Christians who participate in a Lenten fast might give up any number of things, from chocolate to coffee to cable.
Many people see the act of denying themselves something they love as part of learning to suffer since the season commemorates, in part, Jesus’ suffering. But Lynne M. Babb, author of the book Fasting, suggests a deeper understanding. “Fasting, an ancient practice, encourages us to grow in true freedom,” she writes. “God invites us to experience the kind of freedom that … reflects the awesome reality that we have been freed from sin and death… . Fasting ushers us into a reflective place where we can listen to God and pray wholeheartedly for things that really matter.”
Of course, the Lenten season isn’t just about subtracting something from our lives; it’s also about adding to our lives. Years ago Crowe discovered that saying no to a cinnamon roll led to her saying yes to hearing what God had to say to her.
Anita M. Constance, editor of Living the Days of Lent, a collection of daily readings, says that’s because Lent “is not so much giving up or fasting from. It’s more: What will I do during this time that will make me a truer follower of Jesus Christ, more in keeping with God’s love?”
The days of Lent are a time of preparation, a time to focus on our humanity. They can be difficult at times. But just as the season of darkness leads into a season of joy, our brokenness—brought before God—leads to wholeness and restoration.
Give It Up
Looking for something to fill the spiritual hunger in your own life? Then lean in to find the deeper things of God by participating in the Lenten season. Traditionally Lent involves fasting, prayer, and giving to charity. Prayerfully consider what to give up. It might be a particular food or even an activity that distracts you from God (like your iPod). Then consider what to add.
Create space in your life for regular (or additional) times of prayer and Scripture reading (try one of the Gospel narratives or a set of Lenten readings). That discipline will open you up to what God has to say and to His presence in your life. Then consider giving of your time and money to a ministry that helps those in need.
As you focus for five and a half weeks on the fullness of the redemption story, you’ll probably find that God adds more to your life than you could ever think about giving up.