We have just stepped into the season of Lent, the most important season of the Christian Year. It’s not the most fun. That has to be Advent and Christmas. It doesn’t match the excitement of Pentecost. But, so far as pure, deep meaning is concerned, nothing matters as much as Lent.
At our Ash Wednesday Service, I mentioned that we had moved from Shrove Tuesday (a time of self-indulgence) into Lent (a season of self-denial)... and right in the middle as the segue was Ash Wednesday (a day of self-reflection). Think about those last two components of the spiritual journey. Self-reflection is indispensable if we are to grow, and Lent is about spiritual growth. No significant growth occurs in a person unless we spend some time reflecting on what matters and what does not, even as Jesus did during his forty days in the wilderness (which is where we get our forty days of Lent). Jesus wrestled with things of ultimate importance, with what would drive and define his life, and with what he would let in and what he would cast out. From that comes our Lenten practice of fasting, as Jesus fasted in the wilderness. Fasting is the Self-denial part, quite literally the practice of casting out that which stands between us and God, between us and neighbor, between us and joy, between us and authentic life. So, we give up particular things (e.g., this year I am giving up soft drinks) as symbols of much more crucial things we should expel from our lives (prejudice, hatred, greed, abusiveness, self-absorption, judgmentalism, fill in your own personal blank).
During Lent we reflect on our lives – on what we have taken in and what we need to cast away. We take long, honest looks in a spiritual mirror. We determine what gods we worship, usually at the expense of the real God. We ask how we have allowed love to become limited or conditional or manipulative or self-serving, and how, instead, we might allow God’s Love to so fill us that it makes us new.
Then (as noted), we divest ourselves of that which constitutes spiritual clutter. Again, that is based on the story of Jesus in the wilderness. While there, Satan tempted Him with things for the ego and things for the body. But Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” He let go of anything that stood between himself and the life God intended for him. Lent is about that – about having the courage of spirit to get rid of some things to make room for God. Think of your soul as a shelf. It has only so much room. You can place whatever things you wish on the shelf, but only at the expense of other things for which there is not room. Too often the shelf is stocked with hatred, the desire for revenge, envy, bigotry, partisanship that transcends patriotism or spiritual commitment, avarice, lust, egocentricity, etc. But when those things take up our shelf space, no room is left for God and God’s will and love and purposes for us. After serious self-reflection, we spend this sacred season in a period of self-denial. But it is not mere asceticism. It is instead a cleaning of the closet to make room for that which is new and better and more needed.
All that sounds a bit serious, doesn’t it? In truth, it is more than “a bit” serious. It is the most serious work we are likely ever to do... and the most sacred. What matters more than determining how to make room for God in our lives? For when we have the wisdom and will to do that, we discover life in a fullness we never knew before. That’s what Lent is. It’s where we are just now. If we take it seriously, it leads us to places we never dreamed were there.