Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What are you receiving for Lent?

On this Ash Wednesday Christians from a variety of traditions will begin observing Lent with some form of fasting. My wife comes from a Roman Catholic background. In her experience "giving up something for Lent" was done out of guilt -- and you were made to feel guilty if you didn't participate -- along with an implicit belief that it gained you brownie points with God. I know those aren't the motivations and beliefs of all Catholics, or Protestants, who practice Lenten fasting. But it was her perception, and to this day she has conflicted feelings about it.

Last night I suggested to her that instead of asking the perennial question "What am I giving up for Lent?" we should ask "What am I receiving for Lent?" Scripture calls disciples of Jesus to disciplines of introspection and self-denial, but those practices aren't ends in themselves. Taken that way they can easily lead to legalism and despair. Giving up chocolate, or Facebook, or whatever, to try and assuage our guilt and make God love us more simply doesn't work. Instead, our goal in giving up those things should be to replace them with something more infinitely satisfying, namely Christ.

This is one of the ways the Bible pictures sanctification: the process of becoming increasingly like Jesus -- of living into our status as saints set apart as holy. The Christian life, or sanctification, involves a process of putting off something and putting on something, subtraction and addition. The old theologians used the words mortification and vivification to describe this two-fold process.

Colossians 3:9-10 describes it this way.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Lent is the perfect time to take stock and see how well we're doing in the daily battle to put off the old self and put on the new. This spiritual inventory will definitely involve repentance -- and it may involve giving up some things -- but it's all to the end of receiving something, or more precisely some-one. Whether you come from a tradition where Lent is a big deal, or one where it isn't, I hope these weeks leading up to Easter will be a time of receiving more of Christ -- "who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption." 1 Cor. 1:30

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