What is Lent?

Posted: February 22, 2023 in Uncategorized

What is Lent?

John Shelby Spong asks: What do you make of the Season of Lent and how should the Christian Church observe it?

Gretta Vosper responds; The season of Lent is traditionally understood to be a time for reflection, contrition, and consideration of the sacrifice Jesus undertook for our sins.

It has been, as we know, traditionally recognized for the forty days leading up to Easter. Preceded by Shrove Tuesday, upon which Christians are to prepare to confess their sins, Lent traditionally is entered into by many still as a holy season of penitence. However fewer and fewer follow that tradition even in today’s church. Just the other day I heard a radio announcement that The Tuesday is known as Pancake Tuesday when we make pancakes to give away to others.

Of course, all the traditionally penitence focus is contingent upon a belief in the atonement theory of the crucifixion by which we accept that Jesus died to save us from our sins and bring us into eternal relationship with the divine being, God. This is quite a crucial theological shift as when our belief in that story has cracks in it, the idea of Lent can become nonsensical. Why would we need to be penitential if we are considering the death of a man who didn’t die for our sins but was rather a sage/mystic who challenged the assumptions about the current social, political and economic way of being. It is no wonder he was executed because he challenged the very infrastructure of Roman theology, social beliefs and the Empire’s economic wellbeing. And it was political genius of the Romans to use his challenge to his own Judaic religion to crucify him.

If we didn’t believe in the idea of sin as it was constructed in the early centuries of Christianity? Why would we consider an act of contrition the appropriate response to an act of barbarity and violence?

The seasons of the Christian year and the festivals and traditions that are celebrated within them are usually based upon doctrinal or theological premises that are traditional contextually relevant and they may be difficult to discern for us at first blush. Communion often feels like a beautiful, communal meal. The doctrinal assertions that undergird it, however, are considerably different than many assume. Sacrifice, isolation, persecution social exclusion undergirds the importance of community and the stories of blood and body as metaphor for the communal meal are contextually out of place.

Similarly, however, Lent can be thought of as a meaningful time for reflection and the consideration of love, justice, and kindness when the doctrinal beliefs upon which it is built no longer synch with contemporary understandings elicited through the study of the historical Jesus or the evolution of the idea of God.

If our understandings have shifted and we no longer believe that Jesus died for our sins, something many of us do not believe, does that mean, however, that we should give up on the idea of Lent? Many progressives do not think so. Sometimes setting aside a period of time for intentional reflection on life, on love, and on the things that flow from the often challenging, intersection of those two things, can be a very important discipline to undertake, particularly in the busy craziness of twenty-first century Western society, and specifically in this current age when post covid, climate change impact and interpersonal violence are a growing influence on society, community and our families.

And so, I like Gretta and others, invite you to undertake a course of reflection and study if that is your wont and to set aside a prescribed period in which to do it. Forty days feels good to me. And giving something up for Lent, an idea that is built on the practice of fasting, again, an act of penitence, can be worked in, if you like, by way of breaking a bad habit, or building up a good one.

 I’m giving up austerity for Lent.  
 My impulse to beat myself-up in order to win God’s favour seems to die hard.  
 So, I’m tackling this with a diet of joy,

supplemented by a daily dose of the Lord’s Supper.  
The original Christians didn’t celebrate Eucharist

with cardboard wafers and diluted grape juice.  
They shared communion in the midst of a common meal

and sometimes inside a genuine feast.  
I wonder what we’ve lost.  
So, I’m giving up austerity for Lent.  

Mark Herringshaw,

As with other ecclesial practices and understandings, however, I invite you to consider leaving behind the exclusively Christian word associated with it: Lent. To hold onto I think without critique and even perhaps with it, continues to overshadow our period of reflection with a bleak and dangerous interpretation of a tragic story. This is not suggesting that we deny others their right to use the word or to critique them for it. The thought is simply that we practice without it and see if it feels okay for us. Like most words over time, they can change with their meaning. We don’t need the doctrinal interpretation to reap the benefits of reflection and a sabbatical time away from the daily grind. And it is very likely that if we share the news of our intentional forty-day practice with someone who is not involved in church – someone at work or a family member – they will be far more likely to want to know what it is we are doing and why.

Gretta Vosper offers some suggestions about what one could do as an alternative practice. She says that of we are at a loss as to what you would do rather than some self-flagellating practices here are some ideas to begin with:

Think about what one or another of others might elicit in and from you. Would it make your life or the life of another more beautiful? If so, it is certainly worth trying. But the list is simply to stir your own imagination and see what you might undertake against the backdrop of your own life. 

Consider, making a pledge to yourself, and, if you can, keep track of how to feel as you move through your time.

  • Use one of the online short meditations each day.
  • Sign up for a poetry blog and read a new poem every morning when you get up and the same one every evening before retiring. Better yet, write a new poem every day!
  • Find an appropriate phrase or sentence of commitment, Print or write it out and pin or stick it up next to your bathroom mirror. In the morning, consider how that phrase or sentence can affect your day positively; in the evening, acknowledge what you might have done better and celebrate the good you made happen.
  • Write a thank you note to someone every day. Like that person down the street who you don’t know but who gifts the community each year with a beautiful garden or Christmas light display.
  • Think of a charity you’d like to support. Every day, place an amount of money you’d like to contribute to it and a note to explaining why you want to support it (yes, a different one each day!). Read the notes when you’re done and, if you feel like it, send them in an envelope with your cheque.
  • Subscribe to the daily TED talk or a YouTube series about the latest thinking on Sociology or Community and learn something new every day. Follow up on stuff that really intrigues you.

This will go a long way towards breaking any mold that Lent has been and release the new you that you’ve not yet met! And don’t forget to celebrate you while you do it!

About the Author:
The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is a self-described ‘atheist’. Her best-selling books include With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. She has also published three books of poetry and prayers.

Bishop John Shelby Spongs ‘Question & Answer” Newsletter 23 February 2017 Published by <progressivechristianity.org>


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