I respectfully submit that I disagree with those who feel that the season of Lent is a hollow, ritualized observance that actually detracts from the “real” Jesus, as evidenced by the debauchery and debasement exhibited by some on Fat Tuesday (aka: Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday). Or that it is counter to Christ’s purpose, as He stated, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).
First, I view using the American celebration of Mardi Gras (a la New Orleans’ Bourbon Street) as evidence that Lent is pointless akin to using MTV reality shows to make the point that abstinence is outmoded. Mardi Gras, particularly in its Americanized form, is the worldly antithesis to the reverence and spiritual fruit that can exist through the observance of Lent (Galatians 5:22, the last fruit of the Spirit listed being “self-control”).
To the latter, I would like to point out that the passage in which Christ says this (John 10:7-18), is a parable concerning the Good Shepherd, who willingly, and with all authority, lays down His life as a sacrifice for his sheep; only to take it up again, with the same authority, in the victorious conquering of death. This passage is not an entreaty to seek out fulfillment in life abundant in anything but Christ. It is an example of the love and authority shown by the Shepherd on behalf of those in His charge, so that the sheep will not later be persuaded to follow grotesque facsimiles of the Incarnate Deity; nor to chase after hollow idols, be they universal or of our own making.
The Lenten season is intended to symbolize Christ’s sojourn in the desert prior to the beginning of His incarnate ministry. He fasted and prayed, drawing closer to the Father for 40 days. Certainly, every believer in every church needs to draw more near to God. Fasting and prayer are indeed lacking in many congregations, as our daily routines crowd out the movement of the Spirit in our lives and our weekly commitments drown out the voice of God in our hearts, and our frantic busy-ness suffocates the love of Christ from being expressed in our actions.
Instead of the assumed, Pharisee-esque, self-denial often associated with Lent, I instead find great merit in spending a season reflecting solemnly on our individual need for a Savior, and the cost at which we have been redeemed. For if we cannot personally and in an immediate way, relate to our need for a Savior, do we not tend to diminish His sacrifice? Instead of Christ dying for my sins, my thoughts become, “Christ died for the sins of the world.” And while this is an indisputable truth, I have, with one word, removed myself, my sins, my need for Christ’s grace from the equation. I begin to drift towards thinking I’m okay, because I’m better than “those people” (non-believers, people who don’t come to church like I do, people who don’t attend the Bible studies, retreats, fellowship events I do, people who don’t respond in worship the way I do, etc…). I start to gauge my relationship with God through my works, my attendance, my personal activities. And from there, it is a quick descent to the point where I am setting myself up as judge over others. Thus, I have lost myself among the thistles of self-reliance and am in grave danger of complacency and simply going through the motions.
To combat this ever-present danger, in the weeks leading up to the holiest day of the year, for certainly if one identifies him/herself as a follower of Christ, the most sacred and set apart of all days is the one on which we, as a body, gather to remember and celebrate the glorious hope that is the bodily resurrection and spiritual triumph over sin and death that is the Risen Christ! What if, in preparation for that, we examined the rhythms of our lives? What if we took the temperature of our hearts? And what if we honestly desired to have less of our flesh, and more of Christ in us? And after that examination, what if we purposed to make some changes; if we cut certain habits that have the propensity to rule us, and replaced them with life giving practices. Not merely giving up meat, or sweets, or alcohol, or your favorite social networking site, just to show others how holy you are. But, in submission and humility, asking the Holy Spirit to show you what is keeping you from a deeper relationship with Jesus? And then entreating the Holy Spirit to empower you to overcome these roadblocks, so that you may enter into a deeper trust of, a great reliance upon, and a closer communion with the triune God. So that when Easter morning presents itself, your spirit is less fettered than before; and you can come into this celebration lighter, more free, and full of greater rejoicing at the victory of the King of Kings, than if you had wearily frittered away your time in the monotonous distractions in which we are all currently mired.
Isn’t that the abundant life which Christ references: a life free of fleshly entanglements, a heart unfettered by this world, so that it can love Jesus and those whom He created? That is my prayer for this Lenten season. That I may, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, let go of more of this world, so that I can grasp onto even more of Christ.