Membership in the Christian Church of the first four centuries was not come by lightly. As an underground organization, the church had to scrutinize carefully every prospective member, and a prolonged period of probation was a requirement. This period would normally terminate with reception into the Church by baptism at Easter. The final period preceding baptism, Lent, was naturally the most rigorous. Candidates were required to fast in preparation, and to attend catechetical lectures and periodic examinations or "scrutinies."
-Edward Horn III
Among many Christian congregations it's become something of a dirty, four-letter word. To start, many churches no longer observe this age-old (fourth century!) tradition - it's too old-fashion, too "Roman," too medieval for many denominations in America to handle.
And even among those traditions which do honor the season, rarely is there the same kind of enthusiasm or expectancy which greets a season like Advent. After all, there are no presents at the end, no fun and games along the way. And giving up things, please! We've had to sacrifice enough already because of the economy, thank you very much; why should we give up anything more for God?
Penitence. Sacrifice. Contemplation. These are the words of Lent. I have a hard time believing they were popular even in the days of the Puritans - you know, when folks actually held competitions to see who could resist the greatest temptation or avoid the most pleasure - let alone now, when delayed gratification is viewed with suspicion and everyone from politicians to advertisers promises that we really can have it all.
Lent. Each year, as I listen to my non-Lent-observing friends knock it as "works theology" and my Lent-observing friends complain about it as a pain in the @&!, the same question inevitably demands loudly to be answered: who needs it?
And each year, whatever my feelings approaching Lent may be, the same answer comes whispering back: I do. Just maybe...I need Lent. Just maybe I need a time to focus, to get my mind off of my career, my social life, my future - and a hundred other things to which I look for meaning - and center myself in Meaning itself.
Maybe I need a time - is forty days really enough? - to help clear my head of the distractions which any involved life in this world will necessarily bring and re-orient myself towards the Maker of all that was given for my pleasure and which I have let become merely distracting.
Maybe I need the opportunity - perhaps deep down I crave the chance! - to clear my eyes of the glaze of indifference and apathy that comes from situation after situation where I feel helpless so that I can again fasten my eyes on the almost unbearable revelation of the great "I AM," the source of divine authority hidden in the form of a dying man.
And maybe, just maybe - and perhaps this takes the greatest amount of imagination of them all - just maybe Lent really isn't mine to do with whatever I desire. Perhaps Lent isn't even the Church's, to insist upon or discard at will. Perhaps Lent isn't any of ours, to scoff at or to observe. Maybe Lent is God's. Maybe Lent is God's gift to a people starving for meaning, for courage, for comfort, for life.
If it is - if we can imagine that Lent is not ours at all but is wholly God's - then maybe we'll also begin to recall, at first vaguely but then more strongly, that we, too, are not ours at all, but are wholly God's - God's possession and treasure.
Seen this way, Lent reminds us of whose we are. The "sacrifices," the disciplines, are not intended as good works offered by us to God; rather, they are God's gifts to us to remind us who we are, God's adopted daughters and sons, God's treasure, so priceless that God was willing to go to any length - or, more appropriately, to any depth - to tell us that we are loved, that we have value, that we have purpose.
Yes. I need Lent. I need an absence of gifts so that I might acknowledge the Gift. I need a time to be quiet and still, a time to crane my neck and lift my head, straining to hear again what was promised me at Baptism: "You are mine! I love you! I am with you...always!"
I need Lent to remind me of who I am - God's heir and Christ's co-heir - so that, come Easter, I can rejoice and celebrate with all the joy, all the revelry, all the anticipation, of a true heir to the throne. Thanks be to God!