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What do you make of the Season of Lent? How should the Christian Church observe it?

Question & Answer

Question: Carole from Boise, ID writes:

What do you make of the Season of Lent? How should the Christian Church observe it?

Answer: By Gretta Vosper
Dear Carole,

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 you 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 is entered into as a holy season of penitence.

Of course, all that 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. If 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? Or 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 may be difficult to discern at first blush. Communion often feels like a beautiful, communal meal. The doctrinal assertions that undergird it, however, are considerably different than many assume. Similarly, 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 I do not believe, does that mean, however, that we should give up on the idea of Lent? I 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 so I 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.

As with other ecclesial practices and understandings, however, I invite you to leave behind the exclusively Christian word associated with it: Lent. To hold onto it continues to overshadow your period of reflection with a bleak and dangerous interpretation of a tragic story. I am not suggesting that you deny others their right to use the word or to critique them for it. My thought is simply that you practice without it and see if it feels okay for you. You don’t need the doctrinal interpretation to reap the benefits of reflection and a sabbatical time away from the daily grind. And I would be willing to bet that if you share the news of your 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 you’re doing and why.

If you’re at a loss as to what you would do if you weren’t self-flagellating, here are some ideas. Think about what one or another of them would 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, make a pledge to yourself, and, if you can, keep track of how to feel as you move through your time.

• Use one of Barbara Frederickson’s 15 minute Love 2.0 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!

• Tape West Hill United’s words of commitment, As I Live, up next to your bathroom mirror. In the morning, consider how they 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 and learn something new every day. Follow up on stuff that really intrigues you.

Break the 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!

~ Gretta Vosper

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author:

The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is an 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.

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