Depending on your church tradition, the season of Lent will be of more or less importance to the period of time preceding the celebration of Easter Sunday. Some of us will celebrate Jesus Christ’s resurrection with no other holidays (holy days) preceding it. From there the spectrum of Lenten holidays could include Holy Saturday, Good Friday, Maundy Thursday, the forty-day Lenten season, Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras), and in the eastern traditions, the five Sundays of preparation for the Lenten fast.
I have also been a part of church traditions that celebrate no holidays at all. Their logic stems from the idea that we should be celebrating Christ’s incarnation (Christmas) all year long and celebrating His death and resurrection (Good Friday, Easter Sunday) all year long—the Lord’s Supper being the biblically mandated time when the church remembers Christ’s death.
For those who do recognize Lent, it is often associated with “giving something up” for a few weeks per year, such as caffeine, chocolate, dessert, movies, etc. Usually one gives up a luxury, and in many traditions, the fasted item or abstained practice is chosen by the person entering into the fast. In some traditions, there are also prescribed fast days where certain food choices are limited by church prescription. Also of note is the fact that all Sundays are feast days. When we come into the presence of our Lord together with the assembled saints we are always welcome at his table and his table is always laden with bounty. But for the other days of Lent, the practice is to fast, to abstain, to gain focus into aspects of our faith that are often forgotten during the frenzy of our regular days.
Regarding the prescribed fast of Lent, no one who practices Lent claims that fasting should only be done during the Lenten window of forty days per year leaving the other 325 ¼ days off-limits to fasting. Prayer, another focal point of Lenten season, is not limited to Lent. Of course, we pray all year long. Paul exhorts us to “pray without ceasing,” so why all the fuss? Why do we need forty days of fasting when all forty of those days are included within 365 days of offering everything we have to God? Why do we need forty days of prayer when all forty of those days are included within 365 days of prayer? And what about repentance? Don’t we need to repent every day, all year long? How does one even dedicate a prescribed time to repentance when it is always a part of our daily lives?
To me the benefit of the church year, which includes any church holiday, is that each holiday or season encourages and enables me to focus. I am not only a creature, I am a human creature, which means I was created with inherent limitations. I am made in the image of God, which is a blessed gift—a gift too great to measure, but that image has been placed in a creature whose feet are made of clay. I am limited by my nature.
For example, even with my physical eyes, I cannot keep everything in focus at once. If I am looking at a book in front of me, then the rest of the room is out of focus. If I shift my gaze from my book to a point across the room, my eyes adjust and I can no longer make out the words on the page. The same applies to my ears, I cannot hear everything at once. Just think if your hearing was not limited: what a cacophony of noise the world would be, indistinguishable and incoherent. Every aspect of me is limited. Every part of me must be able to get out of the way of the other parts in order for me to focus.
The church calendar creates opportunity for focus. For example, in December, my church, my family, and I focus on the Advent of Jesus Christ for an entire month. Do we rejoice in His incarnation the other eleven months of the year? Of course. Do we focus on it for the other eleven months of the year? No, we do not; we have other things to focus on until December comes around again. The “elephant” of the Christian faith is too big, too grand, too all-encompassing, to be “eaten in one bite.” (It is interesting that this analogy may fall apart when it comes to the Lord’s Table, where the entirety of the Christian faith is eaten in one bite.)
The same “elephant eating” principle applies to Lent. We focus on repentance for forty days because we need to repent more deeply, more fully, for the entire year. We focus on fasting for forty days per year because we need to dedicate everything more consistently to God the other 325 days per year. We focus on prayer for forty days per year because we need to learn to pray without ceasing. Lent is a blessed season of baby steps: we can’t run until we can walk; we can’t walk until we can stand; we can’t stand until we repent, and fast, and pray.
This focus on repentance in general also allows me to focus on repentance in my studies. Through these studies, I’ve come across some wonderful thoughts on repentance. In his book, Great Lent: A Journey to Pascha, Father Alexander Schmemann commented,
Repentance is often simply identified as a cool and ‘objective’ enumeration of sins and transgressions, as the act of ‘pleading guilty’ to a legal indictment. Confession and absolution are seen as being of a juridical nature. But something very essential is overlooked–without which neither confession nor absolution have any real meaning or power. This ‘something’ is precisely the feeling of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him, from the real life as created and given by God. It is indeed easy to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home.
Too much water drowns. Too much food chokes. Too much heat burns. Too much light blinds. I am a little man, and I can only grow by getting the right amount of what I need at the right time. As I mature, I can take more at once, but I am not mature. I still need baby steps. Every day of Lent is one more baby step toward a fuller, deeper repentance. Every day is one baby step closer to a life of unceasing prayer and unreserved devotion.