The English word ‘Lent’ means ‘Spring’. But Lent is not primarily a spring festival, but rather a pre-Easter period of spiritual discipline. The observance of Lent was first undertaken by candidates for baptism on Easter Day – the period of their instruction being spread over six weeks. Today, however, Lent has become the time when Christians in general are encouraged to prepare themselves to celebrate the events of Good Friday and Easter Day.
Lent has also become associated with the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism. For Jesus these forty days and forty nights were marked by fasting (see Matt 4.2; Luke 4.2). As a result Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians have ‘fasted’ from food or festivities as a mark of their commitment to God. Precisely what they have given up will vary: for some Christians it has been a meal a day – for others it has been caffeine (not just coffee, but Coke and Pepsi too!) or alcohol; some have given up smoking, while others have given up sugar (whether sugar in their tea or sugar in the form of sweets and chocolates).
To my mind abstinence for the sake of abstinence is of limited value. There is much more to be said for giving up things if it then enables us to focus more on God. In this context some set the alarm fifteen minutes early every morning in order to spend time with God; others have given up television in order to have time to read a devotional book, or write a ‘journal’, in which they reflect on where God was present in their day and then to pen a prayer.
Others mark Lent by focussing on others. Christian Aid, for instance, encourages its supporters to count their blessings during Lent, and out of gratitude to God to then give to those less fortunate than themselves. The amount suggested for each day is small: so on Ash Wednesday people, in the light of the fact that only 15% of the world’s population live in countries that enjoy a free press, people are encouraged to give 10p for every newspaper they have chosen to read that week; while a little further on in Lent, in light of the fact that about 1.5 million children die each year as a result of diarrhoea, people are encouraged to give £1 if they have not been ill in the past month. Small amounts indeed, but the money adds up. Last year Christian Aid received more than £300,000 as a result of people counting their blessings!
I rather like the idea of marking Lent by setting aside time to write by hand one letter a day in the 40 day period. The letter could be one of encouragement to somebody who is going through a tough time; alternatively it could be a letter of thanks to somebody who has been a real blessing to us. In this latter respect one young person commented:
I made a list of 40 people who had touched my life in one way or another. Each day of Lent, I wrote to a person on the list a letter of thanks for how they touched my life and I prayed for that person on that day …. It was a WONDERFUL experience.
In an era when twittering, texting, and Facebook are standards means of communication, receiving a thoughtful hand-written letter can be something very special.
Of course, there are many more possibilities. Do you have any suggestions?