Lent is one of the most ancient practices of the church, one that has avoided any interest from greeting card companies—and many Christians. For unlike the nostalgia and wonder we experience at Christmas, or the victory we celebrate at Easter, we don't quite know how to observe Lent.
It doesn't look like very much fun, the Lenten season, certainly not worthy of sending cards to loved ones. It's easy for us to think, You mean I have to give up something I enjoy for 40 days? In winter, when the sun is elusively cloaked behind the clouds, along with my spirits? No thanks, I'll see you at Easter.
But when we simply show up at Easter, we miss a big part of the story of salvation. We miss the opportunity to see just how far Jesus dug into the soil of our humanity. We don't understand the sin and death Jesus crushed when he conquered the grave. And we can't view ourselves as we truly are, trapped in sin without hope except for the grace of Jesus.
During Lent, we have the opportunity to look at our own brokenness and invite Jesus to meet us there. But we don't just look inward during this season. We also have the chance to look upward, forward, and outward, keeping our eyes unwaveringly on Jesus as we take part in this stark—but always rich—40-day observance.
On Ash Wednesday, which kicks off the 40 days of Lent, the liturgy says, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It's a jarring reminder in a world that says, "Have as much fun as you can now, and worry about the consequences later." Lent lets us dwell in this reality: Even with Christ, we still have immense capacity for sin. We are all needy and crave mercy because our days on this earth will not last long.
But we certainly don't stand alone during Lent, crippled by the weight of our mortality and our individual and corporate sin. We come to understand human depravity over these 40 days, but it should never leave us hopeless. This leads to unhealthy introspection, which turns us against ourselves, strangling our self-worth and ability to see God and others.
Instead, as we look inward during Lent, examining our hearts and confessing our weaknesses, we also look upward. In our sin, we search for a savior. We need rescue from our brokenness because we're confident that, even when we try, we can't do it on our own.
In his book Why Sin Matters, psychologist and author Mark McMinn says, "Homecoming is possible only after we discover that we have wandered off and are now living in a distant land, estranged from those who love us. Recognizing our sin is the prelude to grace."
As we see our wretchedness, we must look for God's goodness, and vice versa. We become like the prophet Isaiah, who upon seeing the Lord in a beautiful vision of glory, exclaimed, "Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (Isa. 6:5).
Jesus, saving us through his sacrifice and giving us new life in him, meets us in our weaknesses. He will minister to us during Lent if we allow him into our habits and our hearts. He will bring us past introspection, past hopelessness, and into a state of utter dependence on him.
Just as we don't stand alone in our sin during Lent, the season itself is not isolated. It wasn't arbitrarily thrown into the church year. Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his book Great Lent, says that the church seasons, especially Lent, "help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it."