There’s an old joke that goes: One day in February back in the 1950’s, the legendary Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the original televangelist, was at a TV studio in New York to tape one of his Lenten programs (sponsored by Progresso Soup) and it so happened that he crossed paths in the hallway with the aging iconic “Bad Girl” of stage, film and TV, Mae West. She paused in front of him, in all his bishop’s regalia, gave him a slow once over and cooed, “Not bad looking. Why don’t ya come up and see me sometime.” Bishop Sheen reared up in righteous indignation, turned as purple as his pontifical mantle, and replied, “You wicked Jezebel! Don’t you know that it is Lent?” As she sauntered off Mae West snapped, “Well, no, I didn’t. But uh, why don’t you come up and see me when you get it back...”
Theses days, Mae West is not the only one who doesn’t know about Lent. The mass media will have plenty of footage showing the revelry in New Orleans as Mardi Gras winds up its weeks of partying in the streets, but little mention of the “morning after”: Ash Wednesday and the forty day observance of Lent. Yet for Christians all over the world this is a time-honored tradition that dates back in one way or another to the earliest days of the Church. For Episcopalians, as well as Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some Protestants, Lent is a forty day period of introspection and prayer in preparation for the celebration of Easter. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when we gather in church to hear the Scriptures concerning the solemn fast, and present ourselves for the imposition of blessed ashes as a symbol of our mortality, a sign of our humble turning back to our loving Father. We then celebrate the Holy Eucharist, or Mass, as a pledge of Christ’s healing presence among us.
There is no one history of Lent, (the name in English comes from the old Anglo-Saxon Lengtentide, that is, Springtime, when the days are lengthening), but it began as a period of final preparation for those who were to be solemnly baptized at Easter. Later it was also a time of penance for those who had fallen away from the faith and wished to be reconciled so as to be able to receive Holy Communion on Easter. Eventually the discipline to observe this forty day period of prayer, fasting and almsgiving was required for all the faithful. The fifth century Bishop of Rome, Leo the Great, pointed out that fasting is a means and not an end in itself; its purpose is to foster pure, holy, and spiritual activity. He coined the famous phrase: “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.”
Today we have regained much of the original focus of Lent as a preparation for Baptism and the renewal of our Baptismal Vows at Easter. It is a time of self-examination on how we are living our lives in light of the promises we made at Baptism, and to “repent”, to turn our hearts around and turn back to God. In this we can be aided by the traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer may be just creating an intentional space and time of silence to place ourselves in the presence of the Divine. Being more conscious of our eating habits, choosing only wholesome food in more healthy amounts; and reducing our “carbon footprint” may be an excellent way to practice fasting. Being aware of and responding to the needs of others, whether in our immediate circle or, for example, in the catastrophic situation in Haiti, will nurture a deeper sense of compassion in us.
There is nothing which we can do this Lent that will make God love us any more than God already loves us; but by simplifying our daily lives of endless distractions so as to better focus our consciousness on God and a just relationship with our fellow human beings, we will better comprehend the depth of God’s love for us and for all of creation.
The best image I can suggest for this Lent is to reflect on the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke’s Gospel. It is a story about coming to our senses and remembering whose child we are, as made known to us in our Baptism, and making our way back to the Father who is ready to meet us on the road and restore us to our rightful place in the divine household.