What is Lent Really All About?
By Rev. Janice Meighan, for CSMC
Ash Wednesday is a Christian holy day that starts the observance of Lent, which in turn is the six-week period leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Lent is an intentional journey. Lent is a period in the Christian calendar for prayer, observance, and fasting. It is a time for “giving something up” that you enjoy. It is meant to emulate the 40- day period of sacrifice and final suffering of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ on Good Friday.
This journey is part of the retelling of our collective sacred story. It is enacted in every Gospel narrative.
Why does Lent matter? What is it really all about anyway?
As a Christian whether practicing or unaffiliated or for those who would claim a “spiritually Christian but not religious” identity, one thinks about this time when we perhaps see in the news priests or ministers out in the streets offering and placing ashes on peoples’ foreheads and wonder what is that all about? Or think that that is a superstitious ritual! Or that it is even rather weird. Irrelevant.
Lent is an intentional journey. That journey begins when Ashes, from the burnt palms from last year, are placed on one’s forehead or kept in a bowl around one’s home as a reminder of the way to make a spiritual journey, and to live one’s life, all year long. It is also meant to symbolically remind us that we are dust and will return to dust. Alternatively, its meaning is also linked to repenting and believing in the Gospel. The Lenten journey beginning with Ash Wednesday is about sacrifice, it’s about “giving something up” in order to cleanse oneself, meditate and focus on those things in one’s life that truly matter.
It’s really hard to imagine “giving up” more when we are in the midst of despair and collective traumas with the pandemic still ravaging the globe in its original forms and its variants, the horrific discovery of a total so far of almost 1500 First Nation’s Children’s graves, an epidemic of loneliness, a dramatic increase of bullying on social media platforms and in person, seeing the so-called Freedom Convoy take over roads, structures, and peoples’ lives; and now the unspeakable horror unfolding of the Russian War against Ukraine. Yet, we must.
Every faith tradition provides a road map shining a light into the darkest places and this begins with each one of us. And this light, the road map begins with embarking on an often-hard journey. Journeys of all kinds require preparation and being intentional. Lent matters because it provides us with a road map towards our own wellness; this journey of 40-days, gives each one of us the opportunity to prepare ourselves, emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually for all that happens on Good Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
In this article, we’ll see if there are things that can be “given up” should you want to observe and go on this annual journey together during Lent this year. Your observance can begin at any time, even if you have not been donned with any ashes or wish to be.
First, a ‘smudge’ of history (sorry for the pun). The Ash Wednesday custom of placing ashes on one’s forehead was started by Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604). However, this ritual has been generally observed by most practicing Christians whether Catholic or Protestant. Over the centuries the practice has taken place in an early morning Mass or at a service on the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday (Protestants). Yet, in recent years as the number of practicing Western Catholic Christians and Protestants has been declining church leaders have found inventive ways to carry out this ritual.
Prior to the pandemic priests and ministers began taking ashes to the streets. They stood on sidewalks outside their churches in the morning as people bustled by on their way to work, and without the pomp and ceremony traditionally witnessed on Ash Wednesday, priests and ministers simply offered ashes to each passerby. Low and behold, they found many people stopped and wanted their foreheads marked with ashes. Many told priests and ministers something of their life story and moved on with their day. Ministers and priests reported the experience to have been very fulfilling. They had gone out to where the people were and stopped waiting for people to come through those heavy oak church doors. They were ministers and churches without walls.
Over the last couple of years, during the pandemic, priests and ministers are “sprinkling” ashes on peoples’ hands, wrists; some people still allow for the ashes to be placed on their foreheads. Some ministers and priests are simply handing out blessed satchels of ashes. But they are doing so outside the churches. Some priests and ministers are hosting online Ash Wednesday services that are purely meditative and prayerful in nature and eliminating the ashes (see various news sources: The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Washington Post, etc.). This action begins the annual retelling of our collective sacred story, it begins the journey of Lent.
How might you participate in Lent and this ancient ritual this year?
Here are a few suggestions. Hopefully, you will shape these in your own way, change, edit or create something completely different. Maybe these suggestions will spark something in you. The wish is that you will decide to practice something new, or something traditional that’s been reimagined. Rituals matter. In this last year, we have seen how much they matter and how our lives have been altered when our rituals have been upended, changed dramatically, or, in some cases, eliminated altogether. Rituals matter because they bring a sense of meaning, depth, continuity, structure, and well-being to our lives.
Six Non-traditional Lenten Rituals for 40-days or less (I encourage you to pick only one so that you’ll give yourself a better chance to stick with it for at least one week):
1) Spiritual Well-Being: take up one new self-care practice. This can include a 10-minute calming or grounding mediation each morning; or a 10-minute mindfulness or gratitude mediation at night as you review your day; do 10-minutes of mindful and gentle breathing, paying attention to your lungs – the inhales an exhales; pray, even if you never have before simply put a thought out into the universe each day for your own healing, for others, and/or that of the planet (e.g. recite the Prayer of Saint Francis); listen to a favourite or new hymn or inspirational song (e.g. Be Thou My Vision) – you can find these on various platforms including YouTube; light a candle and gaze at it for 5 minutes, use a tarot deck, cast the I Ching, or use astrology and simply ask the universe “what is it that I need to know today?” pay attention to any repeated messages or signs that come your way.
2) Physical Nourishment: make a special cup of tea or cut up a piece of fruit – make it something you’d enjoy mid-day. Stop what you are doing and take 10-minutes to be intentional about your tea or eating. Engage your senses of smell and taste and pause. Rather than eliminating something put something nourishingly fresh, calming, and good for your body into your life (“an apple a day”).
3) Psychological/Emotional Well-Being: Take up a suggestion from Pope Francis and practice fasting from negativity and replace it with kindness in your words and deeds, practice gratitude for what you do have; take an inventory of your news consumption – where are you getting your news from, how often, and what sources? Do you want to give up one social media platform? Do you want to give up one of your sources? You might not want to “give them up,” just take the inventory and see what you think about it.
4) Spiritual Well-Being: If you’ve lost something or someone you’ve deeply cared about in this past year, there is nothing more you can give up. You are encouraged to journal about that person (pet, job, hope/dream, etc.). Take 5-10 minutes each day and write about it. An example: write to the person or pet about your day and how you are feeling without them here or simply speak out loud to them and tell them about your day. The people and pets we have loved are never that far away and they are never truly gone from our lives. When we speak their names and remember them, we continue our relationships with them in a different way. Some memories can be painful, so do not engage in this practice if you do not have self-support or support from someone else who can accompany you in your grief.
5) Physical Well-Being: Take 10-15 minutes out of your day and practice a new physical technique such as tai chi, yoga, EFT (emotional freedom technique), lift light weights, swim (where possible), or take walk in nature wherever you can (even in the snow or on a beach). Engage in some form of physical movement that is safe for you and is gentle on your body. Mentally scan your body taking notice of how your muscles, joints and organs feel from your practice.
6) Psychological/Emotional Well-Being: Look around you and each day for 40-days or less and pick one thing that stands out to you and say out loud “I am grateful for …” You are encouraged to really think about it, touch or smell it (if you can and it’s appropriate to do so); Pet an animal; Hug a teddy bear or other stuffed animal; do a 1000 piece puzzle of a place you’d love to visit but because of the pandemic and other factors you have not been able to go there; read a book that inspires you or a new genre that you’ve always wanted to try (e.g. historical fiction); or find someone who is inspirational on YouTube (e.g. Eckart Tolle, etc.), see what he/she has to offer and re-evaluate what he/she has said at the end of each week.
Whatever you decide to do during this season of Lent 2022, we have faith in you and know you will be transformed by the practice as you make this annual journey towards Easter.
Sending you blessings.