There’s something very powerful, profound, and cathartic about the 40 days of Lent. Even at times in my life when I felt alienated from the body of Christ, wanted nothing to do with “organized” religion, or pushed faithful living to the edges of my being, Lent has always been important in my life. On Ash Wednesday (March 5 this year), the church calls us all to the observance of a holy Lent. It’s a strange and compelling invitation.
After all, Lent isn’t a spectacle to be gazed at from a safe distance, or a spectator sport, where we can sit back, relax, and see how it all turns out; far from it. Lent is a time to actively explore some of the deepest mysteries of life, including our identity and humanity, our mission and purpose in life, our relationships, and our discipleship as followers of Christ Jesus.
Traditionally, the season of Lent marks the 40 days of temptation Jesus spent in the desert after His baptism, before beginning His public ministry. This isn’t a literal 40 days. The Biblical use of that term is widely understood to simply mean a long time. For Jesus and us, an important part of our Lenten journey, or at any time we may feel somehow separated from God, is to remember that in fact, we’re not alone.
As children of God, marked at our baptism as Christ’s own forever, the Holy Spirit is with us, always available to help, guide, and comfort us. All it takes is the humility to ask for help in the simplest of prayers, our willingness to wait and listen for God’s guidance, and the courage to follow where the Spirit leads us.
For some of us, cultivating humility, patience, and trust in God in all facets of our lives, will be a huge step forward in our journey of ever-deepening faith. Most of us are pretty comfortable with our humanity, including that deep-rooted sense that we’re in control. Lent invites us to explore our real identity as dependent children of God. The One who gives us free will, and yet invites us to the most liberating relationship we’ll ever experience: Freedom in Christ.
With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Jesus explored and embraced His own identity, mission and purpose, during those 40 days in the wilderness. Knowing that we’re children of God and followers of Christ Jesus, how does that help us to focus? How does Lent invite us to discern and participate in the mission of the faith community, as well as our personal mission and purpose in and to the world? Best-selling books on these important questions have both pros and cons. They’re filled with neatly-ordered chapters that appear to offer answers to the questions. They even point to key spiritual practices that help us to go deeper. Reading a book gives us knowledge and perhaps some ideas to explore when we’re stuck. But nothing and no one can live our lives for us, accept the gift of faith on our behalf, transform our hearts and minds in Christ, or offer our bodies in service to the Lord.
If we neglect to participate in worship, no one can offer our unique gift to God as our substitute. No one else can use our God-given moments to connect with God in prayer for us. No one but you can do the hard work of sharing your God-given spiritual gifts and resources in loving service and outreach, or compassionate care for others. No one else can hear God’s word and know how it speaks to your heart. It’s up to each of us to offer God repentance for our own sins. No one else can receive God’s gift of healing and forgiveness for us, or know the hope and joy of life in Christ. We all have to ask for God’s help to resist temptation, and to align our hearts, minds and wills to God’s will. Be encouraged by others’ experiences, but don’t let a book distance you from God, the source of all love, life, and wisdom. Instead, show up for Lent this year. Take a fast from the distractions of the world; experience self-denial by saying “yes” to God’s word and guidance. Discover just how powerful God’s invitation can be in your life.
• The Rev. Susan E. Wilmot is priest-in-charge at St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, 975 E. Warner Road, Tempe. Reach her at email@example.com or at (480) 345-2686.