We offer You our failures,
we offer You attempts;
The gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
An offering of ashes,
An offering to You.
These lines, from one of my favorite hymns, Ashes, is a lovely way to think of the season of Lent, which is fast approaching.
Lent has traditionally been observed as "a season of penitence and fasting" in preparation for the Paschal feast, or Pascha (the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, which we celebrate during the sacred Triduum of holy week – more on this next month.) Beginning on Ash Wednesday, Christians will be invited "to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word" (BCP, p. 265). The season of Lent, which spans 40 days between Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, traditionally has been seen as an imitation of Christ's fasting in the wilderness.
As a spiritual discipline, fasting is an act of contrition, cleansing, and preparation. The forty-day fast was especially important for converts to the faith who were preparing for baptism, and for those guilty of notorious sins who were being restored to the Christian assembly. Today, the Christian practice of fasting ranges from “giving up” something for the season to daily refraining from food from morning to night. Penitence, on the other hand, is prayer in which we confess our sins and make restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives (BCP, p. 857). The Prayer Book Catechism identifies penitence as one of the seven principal kinds of prayer.
Lent invites us to take time to examine our lives, to see where we might be out of sync with what God desires for us and of us. It is easy in the rush and bustle of everyday life, to leave our hearts and souls unattended. Over time, our souls tend to get messy. Lent gives us space and time to tackle the mess. A Lenten practice is not about simply wiping off the stickiness or pretending that wounded places aren’t there or about ignoring dysfunction. Instead, the season invites us to push up our sleeves and rummage through the debris of our lives; to uncover the parts of our souls that we might prefer to leave covered up, to admit to those things we hide from others and, perhaps, even ourselves; to bring light to those places in our lives that dwell in shadow. Lent calls us to repent, literally to turn away from sin, what the prayer book defines as the “seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” (BCP p.848).
The one issue that I have with the BCP definition is that it does leave out distortion of relationship to our own selves, in the case of self-destructive tendencies. I find it interesting that Lent is 40 days, which corresponds to the amount of time psychologists suggests it takes to break a bad habit. This year, I have decided to give up sugar. This may not seem like such a big deal, except that eating sugar, often in large quantities, is a daily habit for me. Sugar, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But for me, sugar is something that I crave, that I have to have to feel good. If I’ve had a bad day, my first inclination is to go raid that box of chocolates. For a variety of reasons, from family medical history to recognizing the destruction sugar has wreaked on my body, I will fast from the relationship that I have with sugar. Every day, when that stress craving hits, I will be reminded to turn to God for comfort instead of sugar. So in addition to giving something up, I’m also taking something on: a daily prayer journal.
We humble ourselves through fasting in order to draw closer to God, in order to learn to think and act like God, so that we can live God’s way of life in all things. In recent years, Lenten practices have sometimes become more about taking something on than giving something up. Another way of thinking about Lent is about “making room” for God. Whatever you choose to do (some suggestions are available below) the intention is that you foster a daily practice that helps draw your attention to God and God’s will for you in your relationship with God, with self, with your neighbors, and with all the created order.
Wishing you a blessed, holy Lent!
P.S. Here are some resources that might help you:
Making room for God (families and children, particularly):
Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter
For children and families: