It’s early March, but here in the Southeast signs of spring are becoming visible after an altogether brutal winter. Tender buds are forming on the trees, and outside my window the first buttercups are braving the winter wind. One season is faithfully, if begrudgingly, giving way to another in this continual cycle of life. How fitting then that we in the Christian tradition observe the season of Lent during this period of earthly transformation. From the Anglo-Saxon word “Lencten”, Lent means ‘long’ or ‘to lengthen’, referring to the increasing hours of sunlight as springtime creeps ever nearer and winter retreats back from which she came. Last week we commemorated Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of 40 days of dark, penitent preparation as Christ followers the world over prepare body, mind and soul to meet the risen Lord on Easter. The Lenten rituals of prayer, fasting, repentance and self-denial pre-dates the established church, with evidence that even first century Christians formalized a time of intentional spiritual formation, taking seriously Christ’s commands to “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me continuously”.
Lent reminds us that we are members of an alternative community of travelers along this way of transformation and discipleship; led, modeled and embodied by ‘The Way’ himself.
Christ’s three-fold challenge (deny, pick up and follow) is the sin qua non of discipleship. Lent is the occasion whereby we align our soul and will more deliberately with the Spirit of God. It is living for forty days how we should be living 365 days a year. And while self-denial and the divestiture of habits, addictions and luxuries is the first step toward change, personal disavowal is much more than sentimental bourgeois asceticism. The very choice to fast or deny one’s physical needs provides both existential and spiritual freedom. “It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say ‘no’ on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.” No one who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating or drinking, or gratifies his every physical urge and impulse can ever consider himself free. He is the servant of compulsion, a slave unto himself. Lent becomes the opportunity to put down the habit-forming indulgences that bind us, while joining our Lord in the solidarity of self-denial and acts of service. It is also worth noting that this biblical connotation of ‘denial’ evokes the vernacular a courtroom, where followers of Christ are pressed to either profess Christ or renounce him, the former necessitating self-sacrifice and death. This way of Christ continues to remind us that it is in service and self denial that we experience freedom, while simultaneously offering it to others. [Tweet This]
As Isaiah reminds us:
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?…If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
And still, self-denial isn’t an end in itself. It is never enough to simply put aside this thing or that, we are required to pick up something altogether different, a cross. The specific turn of phrase echoing down through the ages to ‘pick up your cross’ has no other meaning than an invitation to share in Christ’s suffering; to join Him weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn, making peace with those who choose war, offering meekness to a world replete with domination and practicing mercy with those hell bent on redemptive violence. Walking this way, choosing His cross and dying to self is antithetical to our very existence, thus the need for faithful praxis and practice during this intense period of spiritual formation.
As His followers, called by His namesake, we identify with and accept as recompense the suffering that comes from Jesus’ subversive Way. His dramatic and hopeful story, which began heralding highways through the wilderness, ends on the narrow path to Golgotha. The ashes of Wednesday remind us some 2,000 years later that
A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. 
As we move deeper into Lent, as one spiritual season gives way to a new one, urge one another on to follow him unceasingly. Obedience is never an accident. You will never accidentally fall into faithfulness, it requires intentionality and action. Abide in Him so that He may abide in you. Join the saints in this season of spiritual change repenting of sin, renewing of faith, practicing the traditions of the ekklessia and preparing to celebrate the joyful mystery of our salvation.