Lent has been called a desert, a wilderness, an arena and a battlefield, signifying the spiritual struggle and warfare associated with this 40-day season (not counting Sundays) preceding Good Friday and Easter, the holy days honoring Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection.
The season is acknowledged in varying degrees by Eastern Orthodox, who celebrate the Resurrection (known as Pascha) on April 15, and the Catholic and Reformation churches, such as the Lutherans and Episcopalians, who celebrate Easter a week earlier this year.
The word “Lenten” has its roots in words meaning “long,” “length” and “spring,” alluding to longer days.
Originally, Lent was a time of preparation for baptism of new converts. “The early church frequently baptized new converts to Christianity on Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday,” noted Rev. Fred Voss, a pastor with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which has a congregation in Kodiak. “Over the years, the time of instruction for the new converts also became a time of spiritual renewal for those who were already baptized.”
For Catholics and Protestants, Lent officially begins with an Ash Wednesday service in which the faithful are swabbed with ashes on their foreheads.
“Some think that receiving ashes is some high power blessing, but it’s a sign we’re entering into a penitential season,” said the Rev. Joe Classen, parish priest for St. Mary’s Catholic Church. “In many places in Scripture, ashes are used as symbols of turning away from sin and reminding us of our mortality.”
Lent is a “desert experience,” Classen said. “The first Sunday of Lent we hear of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, 40 days to purify and sanctify our lives, a season of repentance, a time to deliberately turn away from things which make us turn away God and our neighbor.”
The three main foci of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. “Everything we do is geared to those elements. What one wants to do personally is to grow in those areas, to become more Christ-like.”
“It’s so easy for us to think of prayer and fasting as an end in themselves,” said the Rev. John Dunlop, dean of St. Herman’s Seminary. “But they are tools which the church gives us to turn down the noise and distractions, to re-direct our lives away from the world, flesh and the devil and re-orient and re-direct ourselves to the Kingdom of God and to try to live a life of repentance, and, hopefully, to experience the stillness and silence of God.
“When we fast and pray, we see how dependent we are on God. He is the source of everything,” Dunlop said. “A brokenness comes to us. Our heart rests in God. Nothing else can satisfy us and bring us meaning, purpose or joy as much as God.
The Rev. Gordon Blue, interim pastor of St. James the Fisherman Episcopal Church, suggests that, since “the idea of struggling with our basic urges for sake of self discipline” is a part of the Lenten season, “the addition of something — regular, committed daily prayer time, reading of Scripture, and so forth — will bring more satisfactory spiritual results.
“We know, from traditional spiritual practices, that our entire being — worldview, thoughts, obsessions, physical condition — (is) shaped, or ‘informed’ by our daily practices. How would our ideas, opinions, and thought patterns change, if we didn’t inform ourselves through media in the particular ways that we routinely do?”
Blue suggests a productive way of spending the Lenten season by asking a question.
“What if we simply turned off the TV and radio, for the 40 days of Lent? Would that bring any new insights? What if we spent all that time reading Scripture, participating in worship, praying, instead? Would that be a productive, spiritually grounded, fast?”
Lent is hard work, Voss said. “Our sinful nature would like to avoid it. We would all like to go from the mountain of transfiguration (the vision of glory witnessed by Peter, James and John) straight to the pinnacle of Easter, the victory without passing through the valley of the shadow of death.
“But look what happened in that dark vale! The power of sin was broken forever; the serpent of Eden was crushed. That’s what Lent is about: hard, often times sacrificial and fearsome work of crucifying our Old Adam that destroys the wild animals of our sinful nature and bonds us more firmly to Christ.”
“Lent is a time when we look upon ourselves and reflect the need for repentance,” said Rev. Elden Simonson of St. Paul Lutheran Church. “It is a time to prepare our hearts and minds, remembering the gifts that God gave to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“We look to our inner soul to see what we need to repent from-- those things that keep us from being the person God wants us to be.
“The focus is looking outside of ourselves and loving our neighbor,” Simonson said.
His parish’s primary focus this year will be moving beyond its walls by participating in local, state and national ministries, such as the Brother Francis Shelter, the Kodiak Women’s Shelter, the Salvation Army, food pantries, Campus Crusade for Christ and Samaritan’s Purse.
The St. Paul youth group is preparing for a mission to Ouzinkie. “They’re looking at the aspect of taking something on instead of giving something up. (As Christ tells us) we pick up our cross and follow Him. Our youth looking at a mission to Ouzinkie, they’re looking at helping something they don’t know.”