Lent, the forty days before Easter (not counting Sundays), is a somewhat curious period in the Church's calendar. Most things in the Church's year are festivals and we happily talk about celebrating them. Lent is very different: it is a minor-key period which is never 'celebrated' but only 'kept'. Some churches and Christians treat Lent very seriously, while others ignore it entirely.
Even among those who keep Lent, there is no agreement on how it should be kept. Many Christians try to give up something: for instance, chocolate, Facebook or television. It's even become a period for us to try to break bad habits, almost as if Lent gives us another opportunity to retake those New Year's resolutions!
Now what exactly is Lent about? One word used by those who observe Lent is 'preparation'. Lent is about three preparations.
Lent is a preparation for Easter. Easter, with its message of Christ destroying sin and death through his death and resurrection, is the most exciting moment in the Church's year. Yet we can undercut this note of victory by being so occupied that, amid the frantic busyness of our lives, we carelessly stumble upon Easter. Lent provides us with forty days' build-up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday that forces us to prayerfully ponder the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. As the best way to appreciate a sunrise is to be there in the darkness before dawn, so the only way to appreciate Easter is to have come to it through Lent. We as Christians are, of course, an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.
Secondly, Lent is a preparation for Existence. A fatal flaw in our culture today is that people do not know how to say 'no' to bad things. It is now almost a virtue to give in to every desire that comes upon us. Yet a great element in Christian morality is to be able to say no to wrong desires. Paul, in Titus chapter 2 verses 11 and 12, says this: 'For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.' Lent gives us the opportunity to practice resisting harmful and hurtful desires that will continue for life. Trivial as it may appear, a battle won over chocolate or coffee at Lent may help us win a war over lust, lying or loving shortly afterwards.
Finally, Lent is a preparation for Eternity. If you take Lent seriously, then these forty days can seem to be a long and often wearying season in which we never get our own way. Here, for a time, pleasures are put to one side and joys are postponed. But Lent doesn't last. The darkness is broken by the joyful light of the glorious triumph of Easter Day. Here there is a splendid parallel with our lives. For many of us, much of our life seems to take place in what we might call 'Lent mode': things do not go as we hope, we do not get what we want and our joys are absent or at best short-lived. Yet, for the Christian, there is that wonderful and certain hope that however deep and hard the darkness is in our lives, it will ultimately be lifted and replaced by an indestructible joy. For those who love Christ, life's long Lent will end, one day, in an eternal Easter in which death and sin are destroyed for ever.
Whether or not you keep Lent, starting on Wednesday 5 March this year - and in what way you keep it - is your choice. But to keep Lent, thoughtfully and prayerfully, is to come into a rich and lasting inheritance. Be blessed this Lent and bless others!