(Photo: Reuters/Eric Thayer)
Lent is in full swing for many Christians who started their 46-day period (40 not counting Sundays) of self-denial on Ash Wednesday, with some taking up a fast of food or alcohol, cutting back on watching television, or refraining from using social media in an effort to gain ground in their spiritual life.
The period known as Lent, which ends on Easter Sunday upon the start of Holy Week, has its roots in a 4th century tradition and is not mentioned in the Bible, although it is observed in some fashion by various Christian traditions, including Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. The season traditionally starts on Ash Wednesday with observers getting the sign of the cross rubbed onto their foreheads with ashes, a reference to Jesus Christ. Although Ash Wednesday is not mentioned in Scripture, dust and ashes are symbolically identified with repentance and mourning.
While some may argue that efforts at self-discipline and spiritual growth should be a year-round pursuit for Christians, many nonetheless use Lent as an occasion to recalibrate their spiritual life, as well as draw others to Christ.
Evangelical Christian author Eric Metaxas shared in a reflection how some view the idea of giving things up for Lent as "oppressive" when the occassion is actually a period of rejoicing for others.
"All this talk of self-examination and re-commitment sounds 'oppressive' and 'gloomy' to contemporary minds, including those belonging to Christians. For most moderns 'the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself,'" writes Metaxas.
He adds, "During Lent, Christians, as a friend of mine once put it, 'rehearse — in the most basic meaning of that word — the story of our salvation, starting with the Fall and culminating in Good Friday.' And in this rehearsal, 'a consistent picture of God emerges: the God who takes the initiative in reconciling us to Himself.'
"Lent is only 'gloomy' if you think that being reconciled to God is 'gloomy.' It's only 'gloomy' if you think that we are so wonderful that reconciliation didn't cost God all that much."
The Church of England's Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has emphasized that Lent should be also a time of reaching out to others.
"In our daily lives we should think about other people, not just constantly focus on ourselves and our own needs. Lent is a time when the Church puts the spotlight on our human condition and in these difficult times there are many around us who need our love and support," Sentamu has said.
Some in the Christian community have also offered suggestions at how participants can reflect during Lent, with evangelical author Rachel Held Evans providing lists of questions, books, fasts and prayers for those in need of ideas on how to make this season meaningful.
Pastor Eugene Cho of Quest Church in Seattle pointed his Twitter followers this week to a previous message of his in which he warns against making Lent observance simply a matter of "religion" instead of actual faith.
"If the goal is merely the giving up of something without taking up of something more significant, the focus is just merely on the stuff which we give up or really, the focus is on the practice of giving up something rather than giving into Jesus — or in other words, our solidarity with Jesus. In truth, it becomes about us...," writes Cho.
"Anything that produces rituals, expressions, practices, and the like — without ultimately inviting us to a deeper understanding and worship of the Living God…lends itself to empty religion. And what we need isn't more religion. We need Gospel," he adds, meaning "a Gospel that cuts into the heart of humanity with a grace that compels us to not just merely to salvation but a life committed to justice, reconciliation, and redemption."