Christians consider tradition, meaning of Lenten season

Cross of ashes - symbol of Ash Wednesday

For centuries, in every Christian tradition that observes Lent, pastors and philosophers have smiled brightly and proclaimed, in essence, “But this is a good thing!”

Thomas Merton, in his “Seasons of Celebration,” wrote, “Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast. It cannot be otherwise, as it forms part of the great Easter cycle.”

Yes! But tell this to the friend who has given up chocolate or beer or Facebook for 40 days. There are grouchy glares and surly snarls, almost as much a Lenten tradition as the act of sacrifice itself.

However, with the Lenten season beginning Wednesday, many religious leaders say they are trying to reclaim Lent from the stereotypical “wah-wahhhh” of sometimes willing, often unwilling sacrifice, and the dread of its approach.

“We talk about Lent as a journey of becoming closer to God and we also look at Lent as not necessarily you have to give up something, you have to beat yourself into spiritual submission,” said the Rev. Ray McKechnie, associate pastor of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Grand Junction. “We talk a lot about Lent might be a time to let things go, but also taking on something new. Maybe something is getting in the way of your relationship with God, but then we also talk about maybe adding a spiritual practice. We emphasize how Lent awakens an awareness of who we are as beloved children of God.”

In many Christian religions that observe Lent, it has been a centuries-long tradition during the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter to give something up as a symbol of penance or penitence, or in memory of Jesus Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness and his journey to the cross.

And it became, for some, a bummer.

“In years gone by, you had to give up candy or something you really like,” explained Doug Van Houten, a deacon at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grand Junction. “Now, it seems there’s less emphasis on giv

ing up and more emphasis on giving, giving more of ourselves to others, to God.

“Anybody can do something like give up candy for 40 days. We used to have to abstain from meat on Fridays, and for some that’s still important. Slowly, slowly, slowly, though, all religions I think evolve, so now what we do for Lent, it’s a period of preparation and trying to help ourselves focus more on Christ and on living in a way that honors that Christian tradition. Different people do it different ways, some people might give up something they like to eat, some people might give extra money to different charities. There are different ways that continually draw our attention to the season.”

The Rev. Alane Currier Griggs of Crossroads United Methodist Church in Grand Junction said during previous Lenten seasons she has encouraged congregants who want to give up something for Lent to give up a habit, something like worrying or complaining or gossiping, that could make their life happier in its absence.

“I would rather see people take on something that gives them pleasure and enhances their spiritual well-being,” Griggs said. “How about taking a walk around the block or volunteering somewhere for an hour a week? So, sometimes I encourage taking on something, which may be a sacrifice of time but could bring joy.

“I do try to give people opportunities to be contemplative. That’s what our tradition invites us to do is think about what penitence means and think about how we prepare for Christ’s resurrection in a way that maybe we need some sort of rebirth in our lives, prepare for that in a way that is meaningful and can leave space for that new thing in our lives.”

Traditionally, the Lenten season has been a balance between the sorrow of Christ’s passion and the joy of the resurrection, symbolized by the rebirth in spring.

“The Paschal Mystery is above all the mystery of life in which the Church, by celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ, enters into the Kingdom of Life which He has established once for all by His definitive victory over sin and death,” Merton wrote in “Seasons of Celebration.” “We must remember the original meaning of Lent, as the ver sacrum, the Church’s ‘holy spring’ in which the catechumens were prepared for their baptism, and public penitents were made ready by penance for their restoration to the sacramental life in the communion with the rest of the Church. Lent is then not a season of punishment so much as one of healing.”

For those who give something up during Lent, the Rev. Kurt Van Fossan of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Delta said he encourages a focus “not so much on what we’re sacrificing, but on what Christ sacrificed.

“Once we have the Gospel, we’re (sacrificing) for others, it’s other-centered instead of us-centered. Any kind of sacrifice we make really is talking about helping other people. Yes, we’re making sacrifices ourselves, of our time, talents and treasures, but that’s what Christ releases us from, being self-centered. We trust that Christ has fulfilled all the law and his promises for us on the cross, and that allows us to be other-centered. It’s freedom when we know our salvation is complete in Christ.”

Becky Vroman, children’s ministry director at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, said that the emphasis in beginning to teach children about Lent isn’t necessarily on the more “dark” aspects of Christ’s journey to the cross, but on the doctrinal teachings that bring hope and happiness.

“We focus on things like the garden where Jesus went to pray, and from that story we can learn no problem is too big for God and that we can follow Jesus’ example to pray,” Vroman said. “For that day we’re going to make a garden, and it’s a reminder that God can make everything new. We try to focus on the love that God has.

“I hope that our kids always come to church knowing that as overwhelming as sin can be, and even they know they make mistakes in their life, that’s not the focus of our religion, to get over our sins, but to connect with God and with one another and how to not allow our mistakes to get in the way of connecting with God and connecting with others. Hopefully, people will remember it’s not this big sacrificial time but a time of connection.”

Van Houten said that he isn’t necessarily giving something up for Lent this year, but is making a goal to think positively about others: “Whether I do it for the Catholic church or for a Protestant church or just for the sake of doing it, it’s all about doing good. We can think we’re Christian day and night, but that doesn’t necessarily make us a Christian. The truth is in the action.”


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