Lent, popularly understood as a season of joyless custom and duty, carries almost too much religious baggage for some people. How then do we keep the gospel front and center in this season of shadows? The cross keeps our gospel focus clear. Lent is a season to journey with Jesus in his passion, to survey the cross, taking the measure of Christ’s love in his suffering and death.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Lent is the forty-day season leading up to Easter. (If you count all the days, there are more than forty, but the Sundays are not counted as part of Lent, as they are resurrection celebrations held throughout the season.) It begins with the stark reminder that “from dust you have come and to dust you will return” and leads toward Jesus’ final week, marked by Palm Sunday and stopping short of the resurrection celebration of Easter morning. Ashes are a good emblem of Lent, a picture of our own mortality and spiritual condition, a sign of Lent’s penitent spirit, and yet a hint of the hope of renewal.
Celebration isn’t the word to use for our participation in Lent. It is a somber journey of spiritual preparation and renewal, marked especially by repentance and prayer. In our pain-averse culture, Lent stands apart by not shrinking away from suffering but cultivating in us the wisdom that growth often (some might say only) comes through suffering. In a time and place of religious freedom, where we mostly don’t suffer for following Christ, Lent invites us to willingly identify with Christ’s suffering through fasting or other forms of self-denial.
The spare and sober nature of Lent is healthy for the heart and true to the gospel, scrubbing away frothy spirituality by calling us to say no to ourselves in order to experience a greater yes in Jesus. It helps to imprint the form of the cross in our lives, recognizing that the news of the risen Lord Jesus is not good without the way of the cross. Lent prepares us to experience the reality of resurrection joy only by first recognizing the depth of our sin that pinned Christ to the cross.
During Lent, we’ll be praying through the psalms of the Passion. This collection of psalms (Ps. 22-30) is widely regarded in the Christian tradition as referring to Jesus’ passion. The first of these, Psalm 22, will be kept for Holy Week prayers, while the rest are arranged in a seven-day cycle that we’ll repeat each week during Lent.
Lent has a fixed number of days, but since Easter is a moveable feast, Lent begins at variable times on the calendar.