by David Petersen
The Church is always prepared in the same way: through repentance. Whatever else marks Lent, it is a season of repentance. It lasts for forty days, not counting the Sundays, reminding us of our Lord’s fasting in the desert and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, both austere events. As part of that repentance, Lent is a time of increased prayer, fasting and gifts for the poor. Yet even as true repentance is not simply feeling sorry but is turning from sin and toward God or is sorrow over sin and faith in Jesus, so likewise, Lent is not so much a time of giving things up as it is a time for adding things that increase our awareness of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus.
That is why the majority, if not all, of our congregations add worship services during Lent. Lent is meant to be a time of increased opportunities to receive God’s gifts won by Christ’s death and resurrection. Midweek services could be thought of as giving up free time or leisure, but they are better considered as adding something valuable to our lives and as preparation for the life to come. Fasting can also be understood in this way. It doesn’t have to be simply denying the body something. It can be training for the body. That training can be good for the body’s physical health, and it can serve as preparation for times of temptation or persecution. The same is true of charitable giving. We might be tempted to think that we are giving more of our money away, giving it up, but we do better to think of how God has blessed us with not only material things but also salvation and that we are privileged to share with the needy.
In any case, when these traditions are taken on for Lent, whether it is giving something up or adding something, they are not salvific and no sin is committed if they are ignored. They do not impress God or merit His favor. We don’t need to impress God. He is already pleased with us in the Son and loves us. These traditions have, however, proven beneficial to Christians over the centuries, and there can be no doubt that they will also be good for us.