Theology student Grace Baxter looks at the history of Lent and what value it offers for the Church in the 21st century.
For a long time, Lent used to be synonymous with giving up chocolate for me. A slightly strange period of time which cleverly masquerades as 40 days but which is in fact longer, because of the Sundays, where I deprived myself of chocolate, always unsuccessfully, and then gorged on Easter eggs on Easter Sunday. Perhaps this has been your experience too, the idea that Lent was just about giving up something, seemingly without much other purpose.
An old tradition
To me, it was a bit like an obscure uncle at family reunions; it was around, but you weren't really sure why, and you were just being polite by acknowledging it (if any of my uncles are reading this, for the record I don't think you're obscure!) So anyway, this was my approach to Lent up until last year when I discovered the Church of England 'Love Life Live Lent' initiative.
Basically the idea behind it is that you are challenged to actively do something each day of Lent, which might bless another person, or get you thinking about a global issue, to name a few examples. And I have to say, it completely changed my understanding of Lent. What had once been a fairly pointless, frustrating part of the Christian calendar for me suddenly became this exciting challenge, through which I finally began to understand what Lent was really about; yes, there was an element of sacrifice, but I started to understand the 'why'.
As I'm sure you're aware, Lent is once again upon us, and as we approach the half way point it seemed worthwhile reflecting upon its purpose. I was surprised to learn that it is actually one of the oldest observances in the Christian tradition, and may well be dated back to the Council of Nicea in 325 A. D. If there are two key words that can be associated with Lent, it is reflection and preparation, considering the temptation of Christ and preparing for Easter.
As I'm writing this, I am still somewhat perplexed by how I went for so long thinking I was participating in Lent when actually I had no idea what it marked, and actually what a valuable period it can be. I come from a fairly charismatic, evangelical church background, where Lent isn't really given much emphasis in the church calendar, so I suppose it's not entirely my fault, but still, I feel like I missed out!
Taking time out
This year, I thought long and hard about what I should do to observe this special period. I had really enjoyed the Love Life Live Lent challenges last year, and had blogged about my experiences each day (which you can view here if you're interested) but if I'm completely honest, I wasn't sure if I had the time to commit properly to it this year, given that I'm in the midst of every student's least favourite part of their degree; dissertation writing.
So I settled on giving up TV, which as you can probably appreciate is fairly tough for a student! But I liked the aspect of also actively doing something which I'd gained from last year's experience, so I'm attempting to get through a book I bought about five years ago but hadn't got more than 40 pages through. It's basically a C. S. Lewis anthology, with 7 of his 'spiritual masterworks' (the blurb's words, not mine!), totalling an impressive 746 pages, not that I'm counting or anything. It's certainly been difficult so far.
I used to watch TV as a way to relax and take a break from working, and now the idea of reading C. S. Lewis, as much as I admire his work, is not always particularly appealing when what you really want to do is get into bed and watch Take Me Out. But already it's been so worthwhile; not only am I learning something new each day by reading through Lewis, but it's also freed up a lot of time, which I've ended up using getting more involved with church.
It seems like the church fathers got something right here. It's not my place to prescribe observing Lent to you, and it's not for everyone, but I wholeheartedly recommend making the most of this intriguing time in the liturgical calendar.
March 15th, 2012 - Posted & Written by The Editor