The season of Lent is a period of sustained focus on the journey of Jesus toward the cross. The mood of Lent is subdued, a time for sober reflection on the cost Jesus paid for setting us free from our sins. Like the season of Advent, Lent points beyond itself, this time to the joys of Easter, where we celebrate the fact that the darkness of sin and death gave way once and for all to the glorious life of Jesus raised from the dead.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, when we gather to receive a cross of ash on our foreheads. Sounds a little odd, right? It’s an old tradition, one that reminds us of our frail mortal nature (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return”). It’s also a symbol of our sorrow for the sins that we have committed. Thus begins a period of around forty days of repentance and self-examination where many of us will undertake various forms of fasting and self-denial as spiritual disciplines, aiming to take the next step with Jesus in breaking the power of sin in our lives.
A little daunting?
Don’t fret if all this sounds a little daunting. Some questions might leap to mind: aren’t we already forgiven for our sins? Hasn’t the work of the cross already been done? Aren’t we to be joyful, to celebrate gratefully that Jesus didn’t remain in the grave?
Certainly all these things are true. But the spiritual formation we undergo during the season of Lent can make us far more alive to these truths. As we look forward to the glories of Easter, we pause and take inventory of the consequences of sin both around us and in our own lives. This deepens our resolve to face these sins and with the help of the Spirit to take another step deeper into repentance. As we recognize these sins, we confess them and the Spirit works powerfully not only to forgive but to cleanse and transform (1 John 1:9).
Take up your cross and follow me
This kind of attitude toward repentance is the sort of thing Jesus was talking about in one of his most profound, challenging, and oft-repeated sayings: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27). In the days leading up to Easter, we redouble our commitment to take up our cross, learning anew to die to the sin that continues to hinder us as we follow Jesus into the glorious good life of God’s kingdom.
Repentance can certainly be difficult. During the pilgrimage of Lent, we see most clearly the stark reality of our need for God. We can’t face the reality of sin alone. Without God’s daily mercies, without his continued presence with us to cleanse and restore, without his boundless patience with us and his willingness to act decisively on our behalf, we simply can’t follow Jesus into the good life of God’s kingdom.
Lent is also a time when we become more urgently aware of our need for the church’s help. Dying daily to sin is difficult work and we will often fail. We will need the encouragement of our fellow pilgrims. Together with others that live under the same gracious Lord, we remind each other of his boundless mercy and we bear one another’s burdens, struggling together along that beautiful road Jesus has marked out for us.
Making room for the good life of God’s kingdom
Somber? No, but perhaps sober. If we desire the good life of God’s kingdom, if we long to receive the glorious eternal life that Jesus gives to all who come to him, we must give up those things which hinder us from receiving and entering that life. This is the basic reality of the Christian faith. Jesus came preaching, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!” His advent and continued presence among us is good news—but it requires our repentance. Under the watchful presence and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, we take a sober inventory of our sins and root them out, making greater room for the life that Jesus offers.
This is the season of Lent.
Will you take up your cross again, today and every day, to follow Jesus into that glorious good life?
If so, here’s a few ideas on how to approach the season.