Pastoral Perspectives

Inhabiting Lent

The season of Lent is my most favourite part of the Church calendar. This is because it culminates in the death and resurrection of my beloved Lord and Saviour, the crux of the Christian faith.

The word ‘Lent’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘spring’ and in the Northern Hemisphere, the period of Lent falls within spring time. It is a 40-day period that starts on Ash Wednesday and runs up to the eve of Easter Sunday. Since Sundays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the six Sundays that occur during Lent are not counted as part of the 40 days of Lent.

The number 40 is connected with many biblical events – Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai when receiving the Law from God (Exodus 24:18); the prophet Elijah travelled forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb to encounter God (1 Kings 19:8); most importantly, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, facing the temptations that could lead him to abandon his mission and calling, but of course, He didn’t!

The Church sets aside this season in her calendar to deliberately remember, proclaim and respond to the atoning death of Christ.

The colour of Lent is purple, which is the colour of royalty and it points us to the Servant King who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45).

If you look at the purple banner on the left side of the stained glass, in front of the sanctuary, you’d see a Lamb beholding a cross and we remember John the Baptist’s exclamation when he saw Jesus, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29)

And the purple banner on the right side of the stained glass shows a chalice, the cup of wrath which Jesus asked His Father to remove when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, but He continued to pray, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22.42)

More importantly, the chalice also reminds us of the new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. That is why the symbol you see on the chalice consists of the first two Greek alphabets of the word ‘Christ’ [Χριστός] superimposed on each other.

Instead of flowers being placed in front of the sanctuary, you’d see only twigs. This is to emphasise the sobriety side of life. Having the passion and death of Christ in mind, knowing it was for our sins that he was nailed to the cross, and regretfully acknowledging that we are not done away with sin yet, should cause us to adopt a penitential heart of mourning for missing the mark.

The Book of Common Prayer extends a threefold invitation to observe Lent “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Let me focus on the first two – self-examination and self-denial.

Let Lent be a season of soul searching, a time for us to re-examine and take stock of our lives so that we can set right what has gone wrong, and take preventive measures so as not to repeat the same mistakes.

Intentionality is important!

We can deliberately set aside time for such an exercise during our daily devotion; we can take leave to spend an extended time with the Lord. We can also do this as a small group where we take off individually and then come back to share with each other how the Lord has spoken to us. The objective is to carve out time to quiet ourselves in the presence of God in order to take an honest look at ourselves.

On the note of soul searching and considering that we are not yet out of the Covid-19 pandemic, you may want to ask yourself some hard questions: How has the pandemic shaken you up personally? Has it shaped you to be more Christ-like or has it shifted you away from him?

Are you so paralysed by fear that you are staying away from on-site worship even though you have been vaccinated? Why are you afraid of catching the virus from church if you are already stepping out of your house to go to the office, to the school, to the malls, etc.? Are you so used to online worship that you have no incentive to return for on-site service when in fact you have no good reason to stay away – you are neither bed bound nor home bound?

If you have been convicted by God’s Word, by God’s Spirit or by God’s people that there is an area of your life that is found wanting, come quickly before God in confession and repentance rather than put up your defences – rationalising away your shortcomings or justifying your evil motives and acts.

We must take our sins seriously but we must also take our serious sins straight to Christ. The gospel is the double cure – it forgives our sins and it assures our conscience of our peace with God through Christ.

Besides self-examination, Lent is also a time of self-denial. As Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem where he would eventually be executed, he told his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

In the name of self-denial, many will engage in the spiritual discipline of fasting. “Christian fasting is the voluntary denial of something for a specific period of time and for a spiritual purpose.” (Lynne Baab)

Fasting can involve abstaining from food. When Jesus was tempted after having fasted for 40 days and nights, he responded to the devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Didn’t he also say to his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work”? (John 4:34)

Fasting can also include abstinence from the other pleasures of life, not that they are necessarily wrong in themselves, but staying away from them for a designated period of time can serve to loosen the hold of our unhealthy appetites, and in so doing, enable us to resist these subtle idolatries and heighten our sensitivity towards the work of the Spirit in our lives.

Those who are addicted to various things, e.g. eating desserts and sweets, drinking alcoholic beverages, using social media, playing computer games, watching television dramas, shopping, pursuing hobbies of all kinds, etc. can take this season to tear themselves away from such trappings and instead spend that time to commune with God through prayer and the reading of his Word.

We have just entered the season of Lent. Do not let this season pass us by without learning the lessons that God wants to teach us and thereby grow our faith!

Self-examination and self-denial should be carried out throughout the year, not just during Lent. Perhaps if these two spiritual disciplines are presently non-existent in our lives, then Lent will be a good place to start practising them so that by God’s grace and his Spirit’s enablement, these disciplines will be part of us by the time Easter arrives, which can then pave the way for us to continue exercising them during the rest of the Church year.

Rev Lee Kien Seng

March 6, 2022