Lent helps us return to Jesus. Although it can be a deep time of reflection and contemplation on its own, it serves a greater purpose. Schmemann also says, "Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, the 'Feast of Feasts.' "
Because Lent pulls us upward to Jesus, it also pulls us forward to Holy Week, when we see our Savior's sacrifice most vividly through his death on a cross and his victory over death. Humbling ourselves through this 40-day season allows us to be ready for the intensity of Holy Week and the exhilaration of the Resurrection.
Lent pulls us upward to Jesus and forward to meet the crucified and risen Lord during Holy Week, but it also pulls us outward, to the body of believers surrounding us. Lent is part of the church year, the word church being vital in this spiritual journey.
We cannot and should not observe Lent on our own. As a rule, we're pretty bad at dealing with our own sin. We like to hide it or run from it, but it will always nip at our heels. To truly deal with the reality of sin, we need to practice confession. This is the discipline of allowing another Christian to know the darkness in our hearts and to minister forgiveness through Christ. Only by telling someone else about our sin do we actually walk in the light of Jesus' grace.
Observing Lent as the church, and not just as individuals, also helps us avoid what author and teacher Leanne Payne calls the "disease of introspection," or constant self-focus. Just as looking upward and forward shows us who we really are—frail and forgiven—opening our eyes to the sin of humanity and the sins of others allows us to be more compassionate persons, capable of walking alongside others as they confess and seek forgiveness.
Fasting Helps Us See
Lent allows us to see ourselves and one another in all our sin and brokenness. It's usually not a pretty picture, our unveiled selves. We're often able to cover this raw image with addictive behaviors, busy lives, and ministry. The point of Lent, though, is to strip us of trappings, even some good ones, in order to see our need for mercy and to turn our eyes upward, forward, and outward.
The spiritual discipline of fasting has been the primary way the church has observed Lent over the centuries. When we give up something for this season, large or small, we mirror Jesus' journey into the wilderness for 40 days as we take on our own spiritual wilderness of sorts.
Sometimes it's a small sacrifice, like giving up chocolate. For some this will seem like a huge challenge, but it's really, in the grand scheme of things, a very tiny form of self-denial. Practically speaking, a sacrifice this miniscule shouldn't grow our spiritual life at all, certainly not as much as an abundant prayer life or the act of giving money or service.
The act of giving up chocolate for Lent is mustard seed-sized obedience. Fortunately, God works well with mustard seeds, as Jesus says in Matthew 17:20: "Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." God has a mysterious way of transforming these small mustard seeds we give him. In his power, these daily choices we make start to form us into persons who seek after God.
For example, if we're used to coming home from work and sitting in front of the television, what will we do with our time when we give up TV for Lent? We'll probably think about this sacrifice often, even on a daily basis. It might sting a little each time we think of it, especially when we know our favorite show is on.