Lent: Spring Cleaning for the Soul

“It is such a dreary time of year!”
“I don’t like this part of the church season!”
“Why do we have to go through this? Didn’t Christ rise from the dead!?!”

All of the above quotes are things that I have heard from fellow believers concerning the time of the church year known as Lent. This particular somber time in the church calendar was something that they could do without. Even some of the believers I worked with thought that church services, outside of memorial services, should be all praise focused experiences. Yet, Lent is an important part of the church cycle that in many ways reflects our own cycle of life. For starters the word Lent comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word lecten, which originally meant “spring”.[1] The Lenten journey therefore is similar to the theme of spring, which is a time of renewal and rebirth, but it begins, interestingly enough, in the darkness of winter with Ash Wednesday.[2]

Ash Wednesday begins the church’s 40-day period of self-reflection with the imposition of ashes. This particular annual spiritual discipline is born out of the Old Testament practice in which people who were experiencing a time of mourning or repentance would dress in sackcloth (very itchy/scratchy clothing) and sit amongst ashes.[3] The use of ashes in repentance is a reflection of a person’s mortality. After Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, God pronounced that the land that Adam was to work upon was going to become a toilsome labor, and in the end both he and Eve would return to the ground from whence they came: “for dust you are and to dust you will return.”[4] A person’s self-reflection, during this time, begins with owning up to their own sinfulness and mortality. It begins, therefore, in the darkness of our fallen condition. But despite the solemn nature of this occasion we must not forget that the placing of ashes upon the forehead of the believer is done so in the sign of the cross. The symbol of the cross serves as a sign of hope during this darkened occasion. It is a reminder that as we reflect upon our sinful nature and mortality, we reflect upon it from the perspective of the cross, in which the incarnate God “became sin for us.”[5]

The forty day marking for the Lenten journey is reminiscent of the various “forties” found within the Old Testament narrative. Yet, it specifically seeks to focus upon the forty year wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness after they specifically disobeyed God’s command to enter boldly into the Promised Land.[6] The forty years allowed for the then current generation of Israelites to die out and for a new generation to arise and take the land that God had promised them. The forty years, therefore, signifies a period of repentance and mortality as well. If we fast forward to the New Testament we find that Jesus reenacts, in a sense, this “forty” experience in His own personalized wilderness wandering where He faced temptation from the Devil.[7] Jesus’ victory over the Devil in the wilderness is a victory given to us in our baptisms where, just like the Ash Wednesday cross, the sign of the cross was placed over our heads and hearts marking God’s ownership upon our lives. Once again, although Lent is an annual somber occasion in our Christian experience, it is an experience that reminds us of the victory that Christ has won for us through His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

As we engage in this spring cleaning of the soul we are going to be facing up to the sin “that easily entangles us”[8]and be tempted to continue in our Old Adam ways. How can we avoid falling into those old satanic traps? A clue from the temptation of Jesus can be of help here. Since the “Word made flesh”[9] used His own Word in His warfare against Satan it shows to us how much more we need to be rooted in these “God-breathed” Scriptures[10] — which are the lifeline to our Savior — when we light up the darkened and cobwebbed corners of our lives.

The Lenten cycle of the church year has a certain familiarity to our lives. We are not always people who are upbeat and happy, because we experience the somber and sobering lows of life just as much as the highs. We all have “mirror” times in our lives as we take a deeper, introspective look upon ourselves and seek to ask the hard questions. Lent puts a theological interpretation upon these times and helps us to understand that we are people of the “dust.” We need this “Ecclesiastes” experience to help us understand that much of life is like the “chasing of the wind.”[11] But to face mortality is to face our human sinfulness, for Scripture tells us that the two are intimately entwined.[12]

The Lenten experience reflects our earthly seasons, which is why it is not a coincidence that this particular journey takes place between the transition from winter to spring. The forty weeks of Lent begins in the winter of Ash Wednesday, but ends with Good Friday and the triumphant spring celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. It is important to point out that Lent begins with the cross of ashes upon our forehead and ends with us standing in the shadow of the cross on Good Friday. The cross bookends the whole experience and helps us to realize that Lent is not about us; rather it is about the One who has saved us from our helpless predicament. Our self-reflection in Lent helps us to realize our need to reflect deeply upon the cross. Without the cross we find ourselves only in the pit of despair and desperation. The cross illuminates our sinful condition and shows us that the “Way”[13] out of this despicable situation is found only in the Crucified.

The brilliance of the church year is that it allows us to annually experience the life of Jesus. For the story of Jesus is the story of all believers. In our baptism we were brought into this story as Paul points out in Romans 6: “…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”[14] As we read about the passion events of Jesus’ life, we understand that these events are our own, because the womb waters of the font have brought us into a whole new narrative written in blood by the Author of Life.

As you think more deeply upon the importance and significance of this season I want you to keep the below Lenten poem, written by Pastor Wayne Saffron, tucked away in your Bible or taped on your mirror. I pray that this might serve as a helpful reminder to you when you too question “Why do we need Lent?”

The Second Season  –  by Rev. Wayne Saffron

Lent is
Forty days till Easter,
Not counting Sundays.

Lent is actually
Six and a half weeks
Of very violet repentance
And very purple passion.

Lent is
Watching a man go to his death
And not being able to stop it.

Lent is
Helping send him
To the cross.

Lent is
Knowing this
And letting it sink in.

Lent is
Not getting off
The hook.

Lent is
Taking sin seriously,
Taking life seriously,
Taking death seriously,
Taking everything
More seriously
Than usual.

Lent is,
Among other things,
Having to wait for Spring.

Lent is
Six more weeks
Of shivering
In the cold.

Lent is
Not a very happy time,
But it is what
You have to go through
To get to Easter.[15]

Ideas to Use with your Youth Group

1)   The Contemplative Lenten Journey: In the article I wrote on Advent I mentioned a contemplative experience that you could use with your youth that involved watching the film The Nativity. I encourage you to consider a similar type of experience, but this time use any number of the Jesus films that have been made. You can easily find filmic references to the various themes surrounding each of the six weeks of Lent. Make sure that the space that you use for this experience is a comfortable space that allows students to stretch out. Use candles and other types of “focal point” objects such as a crown of thorns, hammer, nails, and a cross. Utilize any number of ancient and contemporary hymns/songs that are contemplative in nature, but also are focused upon the cross. For more details on this event check out my Advent article  and apply those details to the Lenten experience.

2)   A-Maze-ing Grace: The ancient prayer labyrinth has re-surfaced in today’s world. The prayer labyrinth was a maze, of sorts, that was drawn in the ground in a swirling circular pattern in which the prayer pilgrim would walk establishing a pattern from inward focused to outward focused prayer as they walked into the center and out again. Put a bit of a contemporary spin on this ancient practice and establish a prayer maze in your church. Establish different stations which focus on the different stops on the path during the last week of Jesus’ life. Utilize creative images, such as paintings, computer images, video images, and the like that allow for some creative and reflective contemplation. Make sure you place accompanying Scripture passages or references at each station and have one or two open-ended questions posted (such as “why” or “how” questions) that allow the students to think deeper about the storied connection between Christ and their own lives. If you use a similar “circular” theme to your maze consider placing your baptismal font (if moveable) in the center.

3)   Small Group Suggestion: If you have a regular small group that meets weekly consider doing something different for the Lent season. Find different houses or places around your city/town that could be contemporary replacements for the ancient places that Jesus walked during the last week of his life. Meet in these locations and have a Bible study based upon that place. You may even want to combine this type of experience with the contemplative experience listed above, or as a creative city wide on-going “prayer maze” that puts a spin on number two.

4)   “Remember Me…” – The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when He entered into His kingdom. Jesus took time, while in the agony and pain of the cross, to minister to the thief next to Him. We should see this example of Jesus and seek to find ways to minister to those who are in prison during our own Lenten journey and beyond. Brainstorm with your youth ways in which they can be involved in doing prison ministry. The pastor of your congregation may already be involved in something like this or know of a chaplain who is working in a prison. These individuals would be good resources to help you find ways to minister to those who are incarcerated. You may even be able to link up with a ministry to teens in jail. Do a Bible study, or a series of Bible studies, on the various “prison stories” of the Bible, including the story of the thief on the cross. Help teens to work through the negative thoughts or feelings that they may have towards those who are in prison. Also help them to see that God calls us to have “cross eyes” to those who are not like us. Be sensitive to those teens who may have loved ones serving time in prison or who have been victims of a crime. Don’t see these issues as road blocks to serving, but rather as opportunities to minister to them and those in jail.

[1]Dennis R. Fakes, Exploring Our Lutheran Liturgy: How and Why We Worship, (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1994), p. 40.

[2]Ibid, 41.

[3]See for instance Jonah 3:5-6 (Note: All quotations are taken from the NIV unless otherwise stated.)

[4]Gen. 3:19c

[5]2 Cor. 5:21

[6]See Deuteronomy chapters 1 & 2.

[7]See Luke 4:1-13

[8]Heb. 12:1b

[9]John 1:14

[10]2 Tim. 3:16

[11]Ecc. 1:14

[12]See Gen. 3

[13]John 14:6

[14] Rom. 6:3-4

[15]As reprinted in Fakes, p. 32.

Published December 4, 2009

About the author

Rev. Jonathan Ruehs is the Associate Pastor in charge of outreach in the campus ministry department at Concordia University in Irvine, California.
View more from Jonathan

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