The origin of our tradition of giving something up for Lent is one that focuses on removing worldly distractions from our lives so that we can grow closer to God. I have heard many people equate this practice to the act of deny ourselves and carry our cross. Chocolate. Diet Coke. Cursing. Alcohol. Eating out. Facebook. My favorite is the attempt from 90% of students to give up homework. If I am honest with you, I was a young adult before I really began to grasp the real purpose for the practice. I think the first time I even thought about giving up something was in High School when other kids started boasting about what they gave up. Giving something up for Lent was cool, so right away I decided that I would take the cool factor to another level and give up Diet Coke because somewhere in my 15 year old brain I thought it was cool that I drank a ton of it. The migraines hit though and it wasn’t long before I went running for that ice cold drink as soon as the bell rang to release school one afternoon. This was my first time giving something up, but not the last. Since that rough start, I have made an attempt to give up just about anything and everything… and in hindsight, it seems it was always in an attempt to build my perception of myself rather than to refocus on God. As I read Facebook posts and talk to friends, it seems more and more as if Lent has become the time to get a second chance at the New Year’s resolutions that most of us have probably given up on weeks ago, a 40-day crash diet and self-improvement time. However, denying ourselves for social reasons is NOT what Jesus had in mind.
Over the last 2-3 years I have seen a slow change in focus during this season though, and one that I think is more in line with what Jesus was talking about and reminiscent of the original Lenten practice. A few years ago, I remember seeing a push to donate money and time (typically 40 hours) to charities for Lent. Last year, and again this year, I have seen a push to give up negative character traits and actions (including a list of 40, one for each day). One that really caught my attention this year was “40 bags in 40 days,” challenging participants to re-evaluate not just their material belongings, but many different aspects of life as they get rid of 40 bags of stuff over the course of the Lenten season, tackling one pile of stuff or part of your life each day. Suggestions included donating items to charities or getting your schedule de-cluttered so you can have some family time. While these are all great ideas though, we are called to change our entire lives, not just 40 days worth (even though this is a great place to start).
When I was in middle school and at summer camp, I remember a counselor crossing his arms in front of him and asking what we saw. Because it was a church camp, we of course said “a cross!” We talked about what a cross was and why it was important, but then he explained how it serves as a reminder of how we should live. He explained that the biggest part of the cross was the piece of wood that stuck in the ground and reached to the sky and can represent our relationship with God. The other part of the cross, the arms that reach out to either side, reminds us of our relationship with others. When we view the cross in this way, the cross reminds us of that commandment to love God and neighbor, serving others rather than ourselves, and living our lives in a way that reflects what Christ taught us through his own priority to live and die for us.
I think the best part of all of this though is the little piece of the Gospel that gets overlooked due to the shock factor. Tucked in Jesus’ words when he tells the disciples that he will die soon is a word of hope, hope for the future. He will RISE AGAIN. The disciples aren’t being told to change their lives for someone who will be gone soon, but instead for someone and something that is so far beyond all comprehension that he will RISE AGAIN. He will give his life for theirs, and then live eternally with God the creator. Having born the ultimate cross, Christ will continue to live WITH us and FOR us in a way that no other person can. This is the same Christ through whom we are baptized and enter into a new life, a life that calls us to deny all worldly things and turn our sight to God. We, along with the disciples, are being told to remember our baptism during the season of Lent and throughout our lives because through Christ, there is hope for the future. Those who remember their baptism in word and deed as they deny human things, setting their mind on divine things, living in the way that Christ taught, will continue to live out their baptism in a new way with Christ for eternity.
As the ashes fade from our forehead and embark on this season of Lent, how will you turn your focus away from worldly things and return your focus to God? How can our actions during this season, and the rest of the year, help us to relate with one another through Christ?
Jordan B. Davis
Church Relations Officer
If you have not already done so, we invite you to join the Union Presbyterian Seminary Community in our weekly devotions during this season of Lent.