I have a vivid memory of an argument about Lent from 4th grade. We were living in North Carolina, and my family (and their social circle, thus, most of the families I knew) attended an Episcopalian church. Observing Lent was a given.
I asked my best friend at school, "What are you giving up for Lent?"
"I'm not giving anything up. My mom says that if you give something up for God, you should do it all year round."
She had me stumped.
Then there were my college friends who gave up sugar, carbs, fried foods. Lent as a diet plan. It didn't quite sit right with me.
And, finally, there were all those discussions about whether it was "cheating" to break the fast on Sundays. Somewhere in high school, I gave up Lent altogether.
Decades later, I'm back (see Lenten Reflections: Disruptive Grace for more on that decision), and those school-years questions have surfaced again. Is this practice about keeping rules rather than recognizing God's grace? Why only forty days? And what's the deal with Sunday?
Turns out that forty is a Biblical number of completion. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days. So Lent is meant to be a barren time, a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter. But if you take out a calendar and count from Ash Wednesday to Easter, you'll notice there are forty-five days. Sundays aren't a part of Lent, after all. We celebrate Jesus' resurrection every seven days, Lenten fasting or not.
The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer explains Lent like this: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church...
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.
My 4th grade friend was right. Lent is a human creation. It's not necessary. It's not an obligation.
And yet, my liturgical roots have something to offer as well. This Lenten season, I will continue the fast. And I will continue to recognize the abundant grace of God through a weekly feast. And I will trust that these forty days provide an opportunity to set my heart towards Easter, the culmination of the Christian year. These forty days reorient me toward celebration and gratitude, towards grace.