Author: Greg Goebel
Publisher: Anglican Compass
Publishing Date: February 5, 2020
Pages: 159 (Paperback)
Growing up as a Non-Denominational Protestant kid in a Catholic neighborhood, all I knew about Lent was that every year, for a while before Easter, my playmates gave up candy. They called it “Lent”, but I don’t think that either they or I understood why they were giving up sweets. Later, during college and graduate school, as I learned about the rich tradition of the liturgical year, Lent began to make more sense and I began to experiment with giving things up (the most notable being the year I persuaded my husband that we should give up coffee…to this day, his first words about Lent each year are “NOT coffee”).
The idea of “giving up” something for Lent is probably the most common association with Lent in our culture (unless Mardi Gras makes the cut, but our cultural memory seems to have forgotten that this celebration of “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday” marks the day before Ash Wednesday). In many Protestant traditions, like the one I grew up in, Lent is an overlooked season of the church year, and one we ignore to the detriment of our growth as believers. In their book Lent: The Journey from Ash Wednesday Through Holy Week, authors/editors Greg Goebel and Joshua Steele, provide a deeper and more vivid picture of what the season of Lent could be, and why observing it provides rich opportunities for spiritual growth in believers of all stages.
The book is meant to provide an explanation of why we should bother observing Lent and suggestions for how to fruitfully keep this penitential season of the church year. The authors open the introduction by citing Proverbs 11:14, inviting their readers to consider the book, with its 13 contributing authors, as an “abundance of Lenten counselors” (11). They provide this experience by mixing their voices with the contributors for explanations of the season of Lent, historic practices for Lent, and individual reflections.
The first chapter begins with exploring the history of Lent, why it is 40 days long, how those 40 days are counted (hint: if you count calendar days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday you don’t get 40), and the significance of different days in the season, particularly Holy Week and the Paschal Tridium. The chapter then quickly moves into consideration of “What’s the point” of Lent, raising reminders you might expect, like our need for repentance, but also focusing on how fasting prepares us for feasting, and how the act makes the feast all the sweeter. Protestant traditions are much more likely to prepare for Christmas (via Advent) than to prepare for Easter (via Lent). However, since Easter is the high point of the church year, preparation of our hearts heightens our ability to celebrate the feast.
The second chapter, “How to Observe a Holy Lent”, invites the reader to learn about the traditional ways of observing Lent, while at the same time observing that the practice of Lent “is all about repentance, honesty with God, and growing into a deeper knowledge of who we are in Christ” (35). The authors suggest crafting a “Rule of Life” for Lent and provide suggestions for several books which might help you think about how to create such a rule. Their reflections on the major themes of Lenten practice (self-examination, repentance, prayer, giving, and scripture reading) provide thoughtful encouragement for what to consider and focus on. Contributor Lee Nelson sums it up well in the opening pages of this section, observing “it needs to be said that Lent is about dying. But it also needs to be said that Lent is about asking God to bring about new life in us…The purpose of the Lenten disciplines, then, is to make room for new life and actually take up that which is life-giving. This, above everything else, takes prayer” (38).
The third chapter is a series of personal reflections from six different individuals about their Lenten journeys. They tell stories of failing, of questioning, and, in one, of viewing Lent as the church’s recruiting season for Millennials. One particular insight that stood out to me was that Lent is part of a lifetime process of growing in repentance. We are called, contributor Jack King observes, “to practice ‘a long obedience in the same direction’ [which makes it] obvious I will need a lifetime of Lenten seasons to mature into the likeness of Christ” (69). The remainder of the book consists of reflections on the Lenten collections from the Book of Common Prayer (2019 ACNA) and lists of lectionary readings for Lent both Sundays (BCP 2019) and daily (BCP 1979).
Throughout the book, the authors write from their own tradition of Anglicanism which has always, from the first days of the Reformation, tried to take the “via media” between the tradition of the Catholic church and theological reforms identified by the Reformers. A strength of Anglicanism is the preservation of the traditional physical aspects of worship, and in this book, the authors welcome Christians from all denominations into these practices. A reader new to the idea of Lent will feel welcomed into the tradition, and a reader well practiced in Lent will gain new insights by listening to other voices.
The goal of observing Lent is not to make ourselves right with God through our own efforts; rather, it is to enter into the suffering of Christ in a physical way. There are individuals who should not fast from all food (traditionally, children, the elderly, pregnant women, and the ill are exempt from fasting). This year as we head into Lent, we are still mid-Pandemic, and many people are experiencing additional stress. I have heard multiple friends say “2020 has been like a whole year of Lent” or “I’ve given up a lot this year. I’m not sure I can give up anything for Lent.” Observing Lent is not a set of legalistic practices. There are many ways to walk the Lenten trail. If you feel this way, perhaps a healthy option this year would be to practice gratitude journaling, learning about the lives of the saints (or Heroes of the Faith, if you prefer) through an activity like Lent Madness1, walking with God (literally) on Sunday afternoons, or removing that app on your phone that lets you doomscroll.
“Ours is not a bloodless faith” says Tish Harrison Warren in the introduction; “[Jesus] felt the weight of our sin in his very body, and, in Lent, we meditate on his suffering with and through our very bodies” (9). How will you observe Lent this year? We’d love to hear in the comments.