You may have let Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday pass by unnoticed, but Wednesday marked a new season in the church calendar: Lent. The season itself is meant to commemorate Jesus’ fast in the Wilderness after his baptism and before the beginning of his public ministry when, as you recall, Jesus was tempted by Satan (Matt 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). Because Lent honors Jesus’ fast, the traditional church has observed Lent by fasting too. You may have heard a friend mention that they were giving something up for Lent which is a fast of that which they are denying themselves. Fasting is not meant to win more favor with God, as if it were a payment — we have the Spirit of sonship (Galatians 4:6) we cannot get closer to his love. Rather, the discipline of the fast is intended to help us focus more intently on his mercy and goodness, and in so doing to open ourselves up to the examination of the Holy Spirit who knows and searches our hearts (Psalm 139).
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday because ashes and dust are always symbols of humility and mourning. The Bible says that we are made of dust and to dust we will return. Our bodies are made of weak stuff, and they will return to that weak stuff when we die.
Through the Bible, when one mourned a death, sorrowed over sin, or grieved broken promises, they would often cover their heads with ashes and lie in the dust. One example of this occurs in the book of Job. At the end of the book, after Job had complained to the Lord for his seeming disregard of Job, the Lord questioned Job and revealed himself to Job. Job’s response to God’s revelation of himself is recorded in Job 42:1-6 which flows out of a righted understanding of the Lord and his character—one who is both holy and righteous, and patient and merciful. As we celebrate Lent, we ask that the Lord would reveal himself to us, that we would come to know him better and that our lives would reflect his character as we turn to Him.
During Lent, we seek a heart transformation—a healing from within that works itself out in our life. And so the fast of Lent is a hungering and thirsting for righteousness. In ancient Israel, as with us today, outward duties or behaviors can become disconnected from the inward realities. We can perform duties without loving the one we are serving. This was the case during the days of Isaiah. At that time, the people of Israel thought that their works of religious devotion would move God to show them compassion. However, they weren’t moving towards God; they weren’t loving him rather they were using him. For Israel, God was a means to get what they really loved: prosperity, security, respect, a trouble-free existence…. Sound familiar? God asked, if you are devoted to me, why do you not devote yourselves to the things I do? Why do you not love the weak? the oppressed? the downtrodden? Why do you not live justly? (Isaiah 58). As we celebrate Lent, we want to be careful that we seek God and not only behave as if we are seeking him. We want to be about those things he loves: mercy and justice, and we do it for his glory and not our own.
Lastly, we lean into the season of Lent with the promise and expectation that God will strengthen our hearts with confidence and love and joy. Because of what Jesus has already accomplished, we need not fear that submitting ourselves and our lives to his scrutiny will end in our destruction. God promises that for those who confess their sins and repent, for those who seek him, for those who hunger for him and his righteousness, they will find their strength renewed, they will have their joy restored, and they will delight in the richest of fare.
Now, there are many ways a person may observe Lent, here are a few ways for you to consider: Firstly, work your repentance: fast and pray. Consider fasting. If you’ve never fasted before, there are plenty of resources out there to help you think about how to do that. Consider setting apart regular times each day to pray and ask God to show you your sin and the greatness of his provision in Jesus Christ. Secondly, work your heart and mind: read and study. Consider focusing in on a topic, theme, or book of the Bible. Follow the theme through scripture or meditate on a passage. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you God’s greatness and glory. The imagery of feeding is powerful because it captures so well the activity of setting your heart on something, of absorbing it. In fact, the Hebrew word for “meditate” means “to chew”. Thirdly, work your compassion and mercy: service and justice. Consider giving up time during your day to serve. Look for the needs which other’s have which you can address. Seek to right wrongs by overcoming evil with good. There are lots of opportunities. Ask God to show you. And lastly, open your heart to God. Pray as the Psalmist prayed in Psalm 139:23 when he prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”