40 Days of What?

by The Rev. Mark Buetow

ashesFriends, Romans and Youth, “Lent me your ear.” Today, Ash Wednesday begins the Holy Season of Lent. What is Lent? Lent is a Holy Season of the Church Year lasting 40 days. But what is Lent about? Well, it's not about things people borrowed from you and it's not about that fuzzy stuff that sticks to your pockets. No, Lent is a season in which Christians pay close attention to Jesus going to the cross for sinners and taking the opportunity to receive even more of Christ's gifts to us in Word and Sacraments. (Usually with the Supplemental Church Lenten Wednesday Service).

The season of Lent has a long history in the church. First of all, the 40 days of Lent remind us of a bunch of “Top 40s” in the Bible. There was the 40 days and nights that rained during the Flood in which Noah was safe in the ark. There are the 40 years of the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. There is the 40 days of repentance declared to the city of Nineveh by the prophet Jonah. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days fasting and praying when He was tempted by the Devil and laid the Word-of-God smackdown on the Evil One. There were 40 days after Jesus rose on Easter until He ascended into heaven. All of these “40s” were the basis for a time of reflection and devotion in the Church Year. The 40 days of Lent was a time to remember that God's people are still in the “wilderness” of this life and our Lord is there taking care of us. 

But, as sinners like to do, Lent gradually became a season that was less about Jesus and more about “me!” When sinners pulled a big whopper, the priests would say that they could only come back into the church after a time of fasting and prayer. That was the main part of Lent: the “penitents,” the people who had really blown it, were working their way back into the good graces of the Church. Think of it as a Spring Semester with no Spring Break. But, of course, that had more to do with people trying to overcome their sins than Jesus overcoming them for us. 

So, after the Reformation, Lent was again given its place as a time to focus and rejoice on the suffering and death of Jesus for our sins. Sure, we think about our sins because they caused Jesus to go to the cross. But we rejoice that He went to the cross to take away our sins. Think of Lent as the time to pay close attention to what exactly Jesus has done for you. In Lent, we have more opportunities to hear the Good News that Jesus is our Savior and to receive His holy gifts of absolution and His body and blood.

But beware! Most people, when they hear of “Lent” only hear “giving something up.” Some people give up chocolate for Lent. Some give up TV or candy or other things they like. I once joked with my Dad that we should only use slow Internet for Lent. Why do people give things up? It has to do with the tradition of fasting. Fasting means having less of something or giving something up. That's a good idea if there's something that you really like so much it consumes you. Lent is the time to give it a rest and learn to live by God's Word rather than the things you love more than God's Word. But be careful! Some people think the point of giving something up in Lent is to deny themselves some pleasure and so make themselves more sad or mopey. Baloney! Remember: Lent isn't about YOU. It's about Jesus. If you want to give something up, give it up so you can have more Jesus not because Jesus will like you if you stop eating ice cream or brownies.

You might get ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. The ashes remind us that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” But pay close attention! Those ashes are smeared on your forehead in the sign of the cross so that you never forget that the Lord came and died and rose for us crumbly piles of ashes. He gave Himself into death for our sins so that we, who die, will have eternal life with Him who rose again and conquered sin and death. So off we go into Lent! It's solemn. But it's not joyless. After all, how can we not rejoice when our Lord is headed to Calvary for our sins? He died and rose for us and that makes Lent a really great time of year! 40 days of what, you say? 40 days of Jesus all for you!

Created: February 25th, 2009