Has Lent gone the way of rotary telephones and black-and-white television? Is it among the relics of a bygone era? If so, the Church will have lost part of her soul to the intrusion of secular values.
Early Lenten preaching taught mutual forgiveness and forbearance among church members. It encouraged prayer, biblical instruction in giving and strict abstention from food. Lenten disciplines reminded both the careless Christian and the devout: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
Foregoing some pleasure as a voluntary act of self-denial symbolic of repentance was a standard expectation. “What are you giving up for Lent?” became a common conversation starter. It was the same spirit of sacrifice as a spiritual discipline that led the Salvation Army’s Founder William Booth in 1886 to announce his plan to give what he would have spent on plum pudding toward the Army’s mission around the world. Older Salvationists still refer to the now year-round world services effort to raise funds for world missions as “self-denial.”
Is it too late to urge a renewed emphasis upon the spiritual disciplines of Lent? For the Roman Catholic, the ashes on the forehead, like the sackcloth and ashes of old, symbolize sorrow. Sorrow for sin characterizes the penitential nature of Lent. The 40-day period of reflection and repentance recalls the fasts of Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Lent calls us to reflect upon our guilt for which Christ’s sacrifice atoned. The name “Lent,” an Anglo-Saxon word for spring, reminds us of the regenerative nature of the spiritual disciplines encouraged during this season even as spring on the annual calendar is a season of rebirth and fresh growth.
If Christians are to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, we must declare the significance of humility, penitence, sacrifice, devotion, righteousness, confession, prayer, reflection, piety, forgiveness and discipline in the face of winds that blow the other way.
More than words alone, that declaration must be a lifestyle of Christlikeness not limited to 40 days every spring. But we should be able to carve out a mere five-and-a-half weeks each year to give special emphasis to these disciplines through which God’s grace flows to conform us to His likeness.
Donald Hostetler, The War Cry