I did not grow up observing Lent. As with many other liturgical traditions, I came to an appreciation of it as an adult. The Church of the Nazarene has been, historically, a nonliturgical denomination. It seemed very innovative a decade or so ago to hear our Nazarene pastor suggest we might give something up for Lent. I’ve tried to fast something during Lent most years since then. Today is the first day of Lent, though, and I’ll admit I’m still struggling with the decision this year.
The problem is not so much what to give up, but why. It’s very easy for me to miss the point. I am tempted to treat Lent like a second shot at New Year’s resolutions – a motivator to do something that I think would be good for me. The thought process goes like this: “I’ll give up soda, and I’ll probably lose a few pounds before Easter. Or I’ll give up coffee, ’cause I’m pretty sure I’m addicted and that’s not good. Or I’ll give up Facebook, and I’ll have time for more important things.” Those are all good ideas, I guess, but what do they have to do with the meaning of Lent?
There is another trap I can fall into, and here’s how that one goes: “I’ll give up something super difficult and it will show Jesus that I really, really love him. No kidding. When He sees that I’m willing to go through days of caffeine withdrawals just for Him, He’s going to know I’m serious.”
Maybe I would put it in slightly more elegant terms than that, but there’s the underlying motive: I think if I fast the right thing and stick to it, I might impress Jesus. I’m no trained theologian, but even I can spot that as a faulty approach to the Lenten season.
I wrote the first half of this post this afternoon, before attending my first Ash Wednesday. While it seemed radical ten years ago for a Nazarene pastor to propose observing Lent in any way, the denomination now seems to be embracing many of the traditions of the historic Christian faith. And so this evening, for the first time, I offered up my forehead for the imposition of the cross, and heard the words murmured over me, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It was a powerfully humbling moment, and put all of my angst over how to keep Lent back in perspective. The “giving up” is not for therapeutic self-improvement, and not to prove my devotion. We Christians talk a lot about Christ identifying with us in His incarnation – and rightly so. But in Lent we can intentionally seek to identify with Him, too. We try, in our feeble ways, to share a tiny piece of His sacrifice, to know the emptying that He endured. We try to strip away just a few of our distractions so that we can know the purposefulness He had in doing the will of the Father. We try to take Him at His word, that we’ve been called to die with Him.
And simple mortals that we are, sometimes the sacrifice really is something as banal as giving up coffee. Sometimes the dying is as small as dying to the right to check Facebook 37 times a day. I don’t want to agonize over how to keep Lent, but I also don’t want to quit keeping it. It seem to me that the One who was willing to be humiliated on my behalf will not humiliate me if my effort to keep Lent seems a little pathetic. As one of my friends reminded me recently, any tiny investment made in the Kingdom of God, if it’s made out of love, will grow like kudzu. Or as one of our old nonliturgical hymns says, “Little is much, if God is in it.”
How do I want to keep my Lent? The specifics I’ll keep to myself (having listened to the scriptures tonight that tell us to fast in secret). But I’ll try – again – to make it not about me, but about knowing Christ more.