Preparing for Lent

Lent calls us to venture into the wilderness of our own hearts and discern both the light and the shadows.

By Molly T. Marshall

How quickly the days have passed since the celebration of Christ’s nativity! We have marveled at the visitation of the magi, encountered Simeon and Anna as Jesus was presented in the temple, wondered with the disciples at his transfiguration, observed the baptism of the Lord, and now we journey with him into the wilderness -- and, inexorably, toward Jerusalem.

A Catholic family lived just around the block from my childhood home, and I remember being very curious about how they approached this time in the Christian year. Their daughter, my friend Betty, talked about “giving things up for Lent.”

The whole family altered their diet somewhat (no desserts!) and cut down on television. And they seemed to go to church a lot more. One by one the family members went to confession -- except for the father, who was not Catholic.

Striving to be faithful, this family entered into Lent with a seriousness that was both mysterious and compelling. The Williams kids wondered why the Marshall kids were so oblivious about the liturgical season. Why didn’t we have to sacrifice some pleasure as a form of penance? Could we really sneak a chocolate bunny ahead of time? All we knew was it seemed to take a long time to get ready for Easter.

Since the earliest times of the Church, there is evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation in the 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting the Sundays.) After the legalization of Christianity in CE 313, Lent developed patterns that continue, at least in the West.

Repentance and preparation for baptism are still centerpieces of the Lenten observance for the Roman Catholic Church. In more recent years, new emphasis on the renewal of faith through joyful celebration of the mysteries of salvation is shaping this spiritual pilgrimage, and many Baptists are learning the significance of paying attention to Lent.

In Scripture, to do something for 40 days is a hallowing and strenuous discipline. The 40 days recalled Moses’ preparation on Mount Sinai, waiting to receive the law (Exodus 34:28); Elijah walked “forty days and forty nights” to the same holy mountain (1 Kings 19:8); and Jesus fasted and prayed for the same length of time in the desert before he went public with his ministry (Matthew 4:2). Whereas Israel had disobeyed God in the “wilderness wandering,” Jesus recapitulates his forebears’ experience, while remaining faithful.

The wilderness was the setting for each of these arduous pursuits. Also translated as “desert” (eremos), the word connotes a place of isolation and threat. Radical dependence upon God is all that allows survival in the “solace of fierce landscape,” to use Belden Lane’s description.

Jesus’ testing in the wilderness continues to capture our imaginations, as well it should. Wendy Wright suggests that this time of discernment for Jesus is a helpful template for us. It is a time of “wrestling with different spirits or voices heard in the self, the process of which can help us sift through the variety of motives, impulses and values that guide our choices” (The Rising, p. 28).

Lent calls us to venture into the wilderness of our own hearts and discern both the light and the shadows. From the Orthodox we learn that the closer we get to God, the quieter we should become.

If we grow quiet enough, we will hear the competing voices for what they are and, hopefully, hear the sound of a “fine silence,” as did Elijah. Listening for the voice of God, which often sounds like our own true voice, as St. Augustine suggested, will allow the renewal that assuages our spiritual longing.

Next week we enter the holy season, a liminal time, and listen for the call to continuous conversion. I believe that God desires to claim us more fully, and the Lenten pathway can be a means by which the image of Christ is burnished in us -- if we journey with him.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.