The light is beginning to creep back into the day. Late in the evening, the light lingers, and hearts surge with energy and joy at the sure coming of spring and the long sunlit hours of summer. Yet, still the evening falls too soon, and we must nurse hope along for a little longer.
I light a candle for the evening hours; its glow is dim compared to the fireball of the sun that slid from sight not even an hour earlier. But when I close my eyes to pray, I can still see its light, flickering insistently against my closed eyelids. I struggle to concentrate my thoughts and am reminded that I need more of the light. Darkness will always come, and my dim eyes strain for the faintest beacon.
Since March 1, many Christians may have been doing something a little out of the ordinary: making a special contribution to charity, doing a community service or neighborly good deed, fasting from different foods or activities, meditating, journaling, and praying over a daily devotion. Different practices are used to mark the season of Lent, a prelude of 40 days until Easter, the passing of a season otherwise empty but fertile with distractions.
It is a preparation for Easter, for those who want to experience anew and with joyful anticipation the redemptive purposes of the Resurrection and not be once again caught off guard and confounded in the embracing shade of unattended sin. They want to purify themselves in readiness for that day, to feel free to join unhindered in celebration. Thus, they find some way, however feeble or clumsy, to fix their attention on what is happening – to see what they are not without the Resurrection, and what the Resurrection does to them.
Sybil uses a daily reading from a lectionary or a devotional to focus her thoughts, choosing one word or phrase to guide self-examination, confession, and prayer. She then colorfully illustrates a blank space on a calendar or poster to create a colorful collage by the end of Lent. Her favorite is a cross-shaped poster, and she mentally scatters her concerns, her confessions, and her prayers at the foot of the cross as she reflects on words from the day’s reading that describe Jesus.
Kimberlee uses a Lenten calendar or wreath (like an Advent calendar) to journey through Lent and mark the progress toward Easter. And Ann incorporates a Jesus tree (like the Jesse tree of Christmas), decorated each day with a new picture or image that represents Jesus’ path to the cross.
Krista creates a home prayer station where she invites each member of her family to visit to pray, reflect, read, and journal according to their own motivation. She includes suggestions for daily reading, prayer, or fasting, and she adds a candle to represent Christ’s light; an empty bowl to demonstrate the emptiness of our works apart from Christ; a purple cloth as a symbol of waiting; and a cross to point to the day that gives meaning and hope to it all.
Whatever course one uses to guide and maintain observance of Lent, it is not meant to be legalistic or to focus on one’s ability to do good works. In fact, it is more likely to expose one’s inabilities as best efforts fail, as they always must, and one is tripped up with sorrow and sin once again. The focus of the disciplines of Lent is not to be on self but on what is lacking from self – the need for Christ that inevitably is discovered and rediscovered and draws us on to the hope of Easter.
As we test ourselves and endure temptation, and then fall to it, we are remembering Christ’s 40 days of temptation and testing from Satan. And we see that He wholly stood what we cannot. He won the contest over sin where we all too quickly crumble. And so we must pause before we are well on our way, and reach for Him to take us the rest of the way. Each day, the self-examination, the confession, and the repentance teaches us a new and takes us one more step down a path that we cannot take without Him.
In the Orthodox tradition, Lent is called Bright Sadness. It is where our greatest hope and our greatest sorrow meet. As we attempt to cleanse ourselves so that we can be ready to meet with and stand before the Risen Jesus, we are forced to cling more and more tightly to Him just so that we can get there. The Bright Sadness is born from the melding of penitence and repentance. We are faced with sorrow over the irreconcilability of our sin despite our best efforts. But with the brightness of resurrection comes the opportunity availed for us, through repentance, to live. We live as new men, not who we know ourselves to be, because of the Risen Man.