Facing Death and Receiving Life: A Beginner’s Guide to the Ancient Christian Practice of Lent

by | Feb 21, 2023

I want to invite you to something called Lent, which starts with ashes, but first, I have to tell you a quick story.

Some time long after God started a big bang billions of years ago, God’s great masterpiece creation of humankind gulped in a deep breath of oxygen on Earth. Formed out of the dust. Made with God’s image on its soul. It was supremely good. 

God made these humans to share glory with them, because God’s joy is sharing. God made them for relationship, because God’s joy is relationship, and ours is, too. And relationship only exists when both sides have free choice.

In a heartbeat after this long draw of first breath and consciousness, humans started choosing things that brought Death to each other and God’s creation, not Life. It was supremely heartbreaking. 

We live in the legacy of both: the glorious good and the devastating heartbreak.

The good news is that God has come to defeat Death and bring Life as it is in Heaven to Earth once and for all. God becomes a human to suffer with us, heal us, forgive us, and to give us fresh air that we haven’t yet breathed–the air of eternal life that starts now and lasts forever. God promises us that all will be forgiven and all will be made new. God invites us to be made new and to renew the creation with God, to welcome the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth.

This is what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all about: showing us what the power of God’s love can and will do in the face of the worst of human wickedness, showing us what the power of God’s love can do to Death. He invites us to follow him, believe him, and be full to the brim and overflowing with this Death-destroying love. But, if we are going to accept his invitation and follow him, we will have to go with him to the cross before we get to the resurrection. And this is what the season of Lent is about: deciding anew or for the very first time to go with Jesus to his cross and ultimately to his resurrection.

It starts with ashes.

Practically speaking, Lent is a spiritual season that goes from Ash Wednesday (February 14 this year) to Easter (March 31). It’s a season when we take things away from our lives or add things to our lives to follow Jesus to death and resurrection. It lasts forty days (if you take out the Sundays, which are called “little Easters”), which mirrors Jesus’s forty days of temptation and fasting in the wilderness before his public ministry.

We add ashes. Some people will go to Ash Wednesday service to mark the beginning of Lent. At that service, people receive the sign of the cross in ashes on the forehead. From ancient times in the Bible, ashes have been a sign of our mortality and also a sign of mourning. By being marked with ashes, we’re stepping up with Jesus to acknowledge our mortality and to face Death with Jesus going before us. The pastor or person placing the sign of the ashes on a person’s forehead might say something like, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

I invite you to add something to your spiritual life and to take something away.

Here are some ideas of things you might add to your daily life from Ash Wednesday to make room in your heart and your lungs for Jesus’s new life and breath that comes to us at Easter.

  1. One year I read the Book of Psalms for Lent. Jesus made sense of God and his purpose with this book. It’s a book of prayers, poems, songs, laments, and more. Many of the writings are attributed to a guy named King David. Jesus was called the Son of David, a way of saying Jesus was a special “anointed one.” You can read 3-4 psalms a day starting Ash Wednesday. By Easter, you’ll have read them all. If you want a good overview of Psalms, you can get that here: https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/psalms/
  2. You might commit to doing a reading plan from the YouVersion Bible app. If you click on “Plans” on the app, and put “Lent” in the search bar, there are all kinds of plans.
  3. If you haven’t been to church in a while or if your participation has been inconsistent, this is a good time to commit to going to weekly worship for all of the Lenten season. 
  4. One year, I added a justice practice to my life. If I were to describe what Jesus’s justice is all about to my six-year-old son, I’d tell him it’s about how Jesus comes to make wrong things right. So, is there a justice issue about which you can stretch your mind and your spirit in this season? Racial justice? Food issues? Poverty? You could commit to reading an article from a reputable source once a week and discussing it with a friend, family member, or group. You could also incorporate a prayer commitment to go with it. You might commit to serving with a local organization to involve yourself in mercy and justice. You can check out some of our partners here.
  5. Finally, here’s a calendar we made a couple of years ago (so you’ll have to alter the dates) that goes with Jesus’s beatitudes from Matthew 5, which includes practices that are good for families: 

Here are some ideas of things you might take away from your daily rhythm of life to make room for Jesus in this spiritual season. We practice self-denial and self-emptying like Jesus to face mortality and increase our awareness of our sole dependence on God’s power.

  1. Fasting is a tried and true spiritual practice. It’s one of the most challenging and fulfilling practices. You might pick one or two days when you’ll fast, such as Good Friday, the day when we reflect on Jesus’s crucifixion. You might pick a day a week when you’ll fast or one meal you’ll skip. If/when you fast, I encourage you to repeat these words that Jesus himself said when he was hungry, “Humans don’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 
  2. In addition to food fasting, you might try a technology fast of some kind. Maybe for you, you’ll abstain from social media for forty days. Or, maybe you’ll set up times during the day when you limit your use of technology. 
  3. Committing to some giving practice can be powerful. One of the best ways to change your relationship with money is to give it away. You can give it to any cause or organization that you feel is worthy. If it aligns closely with the heart of Jesus, even better.
  4. Be prayerful and creative in making up your own practice of self-denial. What is something you could take away from your life that would make room for the new life and breath that comes to us in Jesus at Easter?

Lent has become my favorite time of year. It prepares us for the center of gravity for the Christian faith, which is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and ultimately the resurrection of all dead things, including us. Happy Lent.