“LENT: Symbolism, Secrecy, Sacrifice of Self-Denial”
Meritus Medical Center
Ash Wednesday, 2011
sh Wednesday signals the beginning of a significant period in the Christian year known as Lent. The word ‘lent’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for spring [‘lencten’] and may refer to the ‘lengthen’-ing of the days of spring. Forty days may reflect the time Moses spent on Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19, 24 & 34) or the period Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness before his series of temptations by Satan (see Matthew 4; Mark 1:12 or Luke 4). In the early Church forty days was the normal period of preparation for new converts who would be baptized at Easter.
he most familiar practice associated with the Lenten season is fasting. Originally only one meal per day was eaten, usually in the evening. Many foods such as meat and dairy products were forbidden. From the fourth through the ninth centuries fasting was emphasized and strictly enforced. By the mid-sixteenth century evening vespers [prayers] were said at midday, making the entire afternoon into a kind of ‘evening’ so that the evening meal could be eaten quite early. Gradually the practice of fasting declined to the point that today, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are observed as fast days by a handful of dedicated Christians.
ent helps us understand symbolism. On Ash Wednesday in many churches, worshipers will pray, receive the sacrament of Communion and then have the ashes of palms smudged on their foreheads. This imposition of ashes is a visible sign to distinguish believers from unbelievers. Secular culture has made most of us ignorant of religious symbols and their significance. Ashes remind us of our creation from the dust of earth and our mortality. The Lenten season reminds us that repentance, self-denial and introspection are spiritual disciplines or ‘means of grace’ to help us recover lost intimacy with God.
onsider the spiritual benefits of self-denial. There is an increased awareness of human appetites and drives (hunger, sex, money or power); of human frailty (light-headedness reminds us not to take our bodies for granted); of human fragility (how easily an empty stomach can become a critical spirit)!
ecrecy in self-denial, is a second aspect of Lent. Jesus instructed: “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” [Matthew 6:17-18, NIV] Activists go on hunger strikes for various reasons: the plight of the homeless, the mistreatment of hostages, the neglect of the poor. These acts are usually designed to attract attention rather than being done in secret. They are not properly ‘fasts’ because of their publicity. Our self-indulgent society is incompatible with any form of self-denial for any purpose. Self-denial is ineffective unless exercised in the context of God’s love. Paul understood this when he wrote: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” [I Corinthians 13:3, NIV] Without love, self-denial is senseless.
third element of Lenten self-denial is Personal Sacrifice. When I was in elementary school, some of my classmates boasted about what they were giving up for Lent. These ‘sacrifices’ took form as chocolates, gum or some other incidental that they could easily live without. This type of self-denial entirely misses the point. But the idea of ‘giving up’ or sacrifice is right on target. Most of us would benefit from forty days of ‘giving up’ some recreation or hobby that takes us away from our families in favor of ‘gaining’ time spent in prayer, Bible study, service to others or interpersonal relationships. Others could ‘sacrifice’ a favorite TV program or Internet surfing to strengthen family ties. Still others may ‘give up’ un-Christ-like attitudes like pride or self-sufficiency that weaken their witness. Lent offers opportunities for personal reflection, renewal and repentance. Discover the refreshing rhythms of God’s redeeming grace through Lenten symbolism, secrecy and sacrifice.
Note: This article was originally published as a “Voices” column in the El Dorado News-Times. It is reprinted today with permission from the author.