The first year I attended a school where Gentiles were the over- whelming majority, I noticed a classmate with a strange smudge of black in the center of her forehead.
“Hey, you’ve got dirt on your face,” I said. I thought I was doing her a favor when I reached up to wipe it away.
She recoiled in horror. “It’s Ash Wednesday. That dirt is supposed to be there,” she insisted.
I soon noticed many of my classmates were sporting dirty foreheads. I had no idea what this strange ritual was about, but as a self-conscious eighth grade girl, I was glad I didn’t have to walk around like that all day.
I didn’t know it then, but I learned (as we all do at some point in our lives) that mourning is an inescapable part of our earthly existence. We live in a world shaped by the effects of humanity’s disconnection from God. That disconnection manifests itself in loss, sickness, and death. Whether it is a generalized awareness of our brokenness or a specific grief after the death of a loved one, Lent interrupts our regularly scheduled lives to reconnect us with the deepest need behind our pain: communion with God.
Disciplines of abstinence, such as fasting, typically mark this season for many in the Church. Lenten fasts are meant to bring us face to face with our soul’s emptiness. In a divine paradox, as we seek to be filled by him, we’re freed to be used of him to pour out his love on his hungry, thirsty world. It’s a profound way to walk with Jesus into the final week of Lent, known as Holy Week.
Lent is not a self-improvement program. Though the discipline of fasting may help us shed a few pounds or break a bad habit, this season of the Christian year isn’t about us. The goal of Lent is to orient our souls toward Jerusalem, where we’ll follow Jesus through the last week of his life. Lenten discipline prepares us to immerse ourselves into the life of Jesus during Holy Week. Lent is not all buzzkill and bad news. Anglican priest Anne Carlson Kennedy offers up ten excellent reasons to love Lent – and those reasons are things this Jewish follower of Jesus can embrace wholeheartedly. I didn’t grow up with Lent (obv), but have grown to appreciate the focus on fasting in community it affords the Church.
Click here for a quick five-minute background on Lent. I’ve discovered many people are interested in being more intentional about learning about the Jewish and Christian calendars, but don’t quite know where to start. I’m very happy I can commend a resource that offers a thoughtful historical and devotional overview of each calendar, but also know that many people feel as through attempting to participate will be a pile-on of extra stuff to do (and extra guilt to feel if they can’t do it). Though fasting – often related to abstaining from certain kinds of food, like red meat – is a hallmark of Lent, along with every fast food restaurant in America busting out some form of a deep-friend fish sandwich, there are other kinds of fasts in which many people engage. Social media fasts have grown in popularity in recent years. In the wake of the icky online climate (read: politics), some of my online friends are getting a jump on Lent this year and de-activating their Facebook or Twitter accounts for a while.
As part of this ongoing series on the calendar, I have been offering one thing to learn and one thing to taste for each main holy day or season of the year. For Lent this year, I want to throw out an alternative to fasting. If the purpose of our fasting is to set some prisoners free (a la Isaiah 58), perhaps adding something to our lives rather than subtracting food or Twitter might be a worthy Lenten discipline to consider this year. In a recent enewsletter, Nancy Sleeth of BlessedEarth.org put together this excellent list of 10 things to consider as you ponder Lent this year. She wrote, “…I was intrigued by the idea of adding rather than subtracting something during the coming 40 days. So I tossed around the idea with some friends, and here’s 10 ideas we came up with, and some of their comments:
- Ask 5 colleagues how you can pray for them, and commit to praying for your list every day. “I keep a list on my desk and pray first thing when I arrive at the office.”
- Spend 5 minutes on your knees each day listening to God. “At first I set my phone alarm for 5 minutes, but to my surprise I nearly always end up praying longer.”
- Invite someone new to fellowship with you over a meal at least once each week. For example, this Friday we are having a young, newlywed couple over for dinner; we have been friends with her dad and late mother for years, but are excited to get to know their daughter and son-in-law better.
- Take a walk and pray for the homes you pass. “This helps me remember my neighbors who I so often forget.” Bonus: bring a bag, and pick up trash as you walk!
- Ask God to provide new opportunities for helping others, and then give generously.
- Sing a psalm out loud each day. Here’s a tool to get you started.
- Memorize a bible verse each day. “I’m using Liz Curtis Higgs’ 31 Verses to help me.”
- Give away at least one bible or faith-based book every week. “I keep several copies of Mere Christianity on hand so I always have one to give away.”
- Find a prayer partner and encourage each other to keep a weekly Sabbath. Send a text on Saturday wishing them a renewing and restful shabbat.
- Instead of checking the news each day, listen to an inspiring podcast or have a daily devotional sent to you.
This simple recipe for spiced greens and rice from Madagascar is called Vary Amin’Anana. I commend it and the other international vegetarian recipes collected for Lent on the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl web page. If you are looking to learn about other cultures and/or adopt a vegetarian diet during some or all of Lent, this site offers a nice variety of affordable, tasty Lenten recipes.