We are now in the midst of the Lenten season. But say this to most and you will get blank stares. “Huh? What’s Lent?” Since I was raised Roman Catholic, I can answer. It’s a season roughly six weeks prior to and leading up to Easter. It’s a 40 day season, excluding Sundays, marked by the themes of repentance, self-denial, and at its heart is a time to reflect on the suffering and death of Jesus.
While I was raised Catholic I have been Baptist since my university years. Baptists, typically, do not recognize Lent and other practices that come from the Catholic tradition. Practicing Lent, therefore, has not been a consistent practice of mine. And when I was younger my practice of Lent usually amounted to giving up candy or junk food. Maybe TV.
In more recent years I have made little effort to practice Lent. There’s always been a part of me that has thought practicing Lent ought to be a bigger part of my own spiritual life. So this year I decided to give up sweets and junk food. I really need to lose a lot of weight anyway, so it’s a good idea all round.
As it happens, I have failed in my practice of Lent. I have eaten food I decided to abstain from. I continue to try and avoid these foods much of the time.
The funny thing is, my way of trying to practice Lent is not wholly distinct from trying to follow a New Year ‘s resolution. You decide on a new pattern of behaviour and then try and live that new pattern. You decide to join a gym and then you try and maintain that initial commitment for the long term. Lent can, if we’re not careful be a spiritual variation of this.
This brings me to my point: my failure in practicing Lent, even inasmuch as it has been perhaps a shallow attempt, demonstrates the genuine meaning of the season itself.
You see, I cannot change myself. Fundamentally I am unable to alter my inner motivations. Most importantly, I cannot save myself. By my efforts I am unable to approach God. Sin prevents me from acting as my own Savior. My failure in practicing Lent mirrors my overall failure as a moral agent in God’s world.
Lent reminds me that I need to repent of self-effort, of both wrong-doing and self-righteousness. It reminds me that Jesus’ sacrifice is both necessary and sufficient in order to make me right with God. It reminds me that in the light of the cross my failures do not keep me from the life Jesus offers; indeed, my failures impress upon me my need to rely completely on Jesus’ willingness to give up not mere trifles but his very life. Reflecting on this profound mystery is what it means to practice Lent, not only but especially when my practice falls short.