Here in Germany, we have five seasons. At least according to some, when referring to carnival as the fifth season. There are numerous festivities happening over several months, but it all culminates in the week before Ash Wednesday – and then, just like that, on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, it’s over. You may be wondering what is the point to Lent? Below you’ll find Lent explained.
Now, the festivities are not just fun for kids, but encourage people of all kinds to let go of the everyday seriousness and enjoy themselves. So much so, that German carnival clubs sometimes have an insurance in case one of the members impregnates a woman during the many days of celebration.
Lent invites us to slow down and look around. To see that life has come after death, and that everything will be made new.
Actually, carnival is a fascinating phenomenon from a socio-cultural perspective – which is not the topic of this post. One thing that is not a coincidence is that it happens right before Lent.
Ah, yes, Lent. One can easily draw the connection between the days of over-the-top partying and the forty days of austerity: before our 40 days of fasting, let’s have one more big party!
It feels almost natural. Like some kind of balance. We don’t want to become terribly stuffy and religious, so let’s even out the fasting with some crazy celebration.
In a time when Christianity in the West is not taken seriously, and unceasing progress lets us look with disdain on centuries of old thoughts and practices, many of us may choose to simply tune out Lent. Perhaps carnival was loud, maybe you’re just overwhelmed with your day to day obligations. It’s tempting to just skip over the “undue” hardships of Lent and save ourselves the hassle of doing anything special before Easter.
I wouldn’t be writing this post if that was my perspective. Because I know that Lent is actually a great time to tune in.
Choosing to Tune In
Similar to Advent, though with the difference that the days are getting lighter and warmer, Lent invites us to slow down and look around. As nature awakens from its wintery slumber, it serves as a visible and audible reminder of the truth we’re celebrating at Easter: that life has come after death, and that everything will be made new. That is the song of the Spring flowers and the warm rays of sun and the fresh blades of green grass and the hundreds of chirping birds.
We tune in into the majestic reality of God, who turns out to be a serving friend instead of a demanding dictator.
2 Questions For You to Reflect On
Lent also invites us to look inside: where are we at? With Easter ahead, it gives us opportunity to locate ourselves on a timeline, rather than drifting or floating through the year – and our lives. And since we see what’s coming, we can ask ourselves: Am I ready?
Lent: An Invitation to Rebalance our Year
The subtle irony is that we don’t need carnival to balance out Lent. Rather, Lent was put in place to balance out the rest of the year. Yes, religious people can have crazy ideas, but Lent wasn’t one of them.
As we tune in into Lent, we tune in into life. Into the mystery that surrounds us and underpins our very existence. We tune in into the majestic reality of God, who turns out to be a serving friend instead of a demanding dictator.
Our Need for Quiet
Much of our life distracts rather than focuses us. Or focuses us on the wrong things: the irrelevant, the transitory, the disproportionally elevated. Lent helps us to regain perspective. To breathe fresh air. To escape the trap of this-worldliness that has no place nor appreciation for the spiritual dimension.
The Danger of Lent
Of course you can turn Lent into a soul-killing act of self-denigration. We humans are capable of misusing almost anything to our own detriment. Taken seriously, though, and engaged in with some wisdom, Lent will actually help you tune in into the pulse of the living Christ, into the heartbeat of God.
That’s not all, though. Let me zoom in on a simple, practical way of how Lent can not only help you tune in, but also tune up – making sure your heart is in the right shape for the other 325 days of the year.
Lent Traditions and Practices Uncovered
A lot of traditions have developed regarding the 40 days before Easter. Catholics, for example, start seven weeks before Easter Sunday, because the Sundays don’t count as part of Lent (smart move, as you can still enjoy your Sunday roast and fix that sugar itch at least once a week!). When it comes to practices during Lent, though, all of the traditions have basically three things in common:
a focus on prayer,
a focus on fasting,
and a focus on alms-giving.
But Shouldn’t We Be Doing that Anyway?
You might say: That’s just everyday stuff! Shouldn’t we be doing this all the time?
Answer: yes – and. Yes, we should be doing this all the time. As a busy parent (and a very analytical person), I am quite aware of the things I should be doing – and at least somewhat aware of the things I do instead. Of course prayer is not just for a season a year. Of course fasting has a high place in the teachings of Jesus and the early church – our affluence in the West might simply blind us to that when we read our Bibles. And of course generosity should mark our every interaction, with giving (or abstaining from consuming) so that others, especially the less fortunate, bear lighter burdens or may even prosper.
And this is why we need this yearly tune up. To actually do what we should be doing.
Why Do You Fix Your Car?
Think of a car, if you own or drive one (or ever saw one). In Germany, we place a lot of value on cars. And not just on their looks, but also on the state of their internal workings. So every other year, every car in this great country needs to get a check-up to make sure it is still fit for the road.
Guess what happens when this time comes around? Right. Suddenly, people ring up a garage they hadn’t thought about the previous 23 months, and have them prepare their car for the big test. Headlight not working?
Fix it. Engine’s not running smoothly? Fix it.
Too little oil, tires getting old, brakes a bit rusty? Fix it.
Because you want to pass that test, since you want to drive your car!
Of course, this check-up isn’t meant so that the rest of the time you drive around a broken car.That would be a very odd – and silly – understanding of the whole thing! The point of the check-up is to make sure that the things that need fixing will get fixed at some point – and not never! And to find out early if something is going the wrong way before it gets worse and endangers your car, you, and others.
Your Lenten Check-up
Lent has a lot of similarities with that. Now, there’s no human authority that will give you a sticker that declares to the world that you’re still fit for Christian living. As you may have noticed, you could be a wonderful Christian right now even though you have never observed Lent!
The point is: Lent gives us some very practical ways to check where our heart is at – and at the same time they are they ways that can get our heart back into shape.
3 Ways to Get Your Heart Back into Shape During Lent
How is my prayer life? Do I pray? If not, what hinders me? Do I enjoy prayer? What would better describe my prayers: a sporadic monologue or a conversation between friends? And what do I want it to look and feel and sound like?
During Lent, many churches offer special prayer times. This can be a help for you to receive prayer, hear others pray, or lean into the century-old prayers of our spiritual predecessors. It can also help you pray for others, whether near and far, and so revive what might have become a stale habit of asking God to bless you, period.
Ouch! Well, fasting does mean to give something up – and that something is food whenever fasting is mentioned in the Bible. Which provides the necessary oomph by affecting our physical existence as we ask: Who or what is truly important in my life? What do I think I cannot exist without? How might someone feel who lacks what I take for granted? What place does my physical existence have – and where do I need to adjust my priorities when it comes to self-care?
The way to go here is: experiment. Do try and fast food (that’s the opposite of fast-food, by the way). Do use common sense, though – medical conditions, pregnancy etc. can make it a bad idea to not eat! You can do that alone or with other like-minded people.
Also, abstain from something else. Some churches encourage fasting plastic during Lent to help us become more sensitive towards ecological sustainability and adjust our habits.
Or you may fast consumption: consider not buying anything (yes, anything!) except for groceries and gas during these 40 days.
Where does my money actually go? Does my budget reflect the importance Jesus, His church, and my neighbor has – or does it reflect my ability to spoil myself without noticing it? Who around me is actually in need? What can I do to find out? What are ways I can give to others that don’t involve money – or may come alongside giving money, in order to deal with root issues rather than symptoms?
When in doubt, there are hundreds of charities you can give to. The internet can even help you to find out if they are trustworthy. So can your friends or people at church. Do also make it personal, though. There is need in your neighborhood, your city, or your workplace – and it has a face and a name. Start meeting it.
Every now and then, I hear young Christian people contemplate whether they should have children. The implication, especially for the women, is that with children it will be impossible to radically serve God.
The point, again, is not to have a “spiritual high season” once a year. It’s to have that much-needed check-up to see where we are at.
To maybe fix it where things have gone the wrong way. And then, like a workout, start building those faith-muscles that enable us to actually do during the year what we should be doing. 🙂
Not because we want some kind of sticker that tells us we’re good enough. But because living tuned up for tuning in, we actually get what we truly crave: more life, more joy, more God.
Are you ready?
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