Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Lenten" Questions

The Christian church, like most other religions, breaks up the calendar year into chunks that relate to specific themes. This system has a lot of positive effects: it communicates the primary teachings, it maintains interest by giving variety, it provides structure and pattern for those who need them, and it facilitates "holidays" that typically cap each season. The two primary Christian seasons are Advent, which precedes Christmas, and Lent, which precedes Easter.

Although I'm a Christian, I've always been sceptical about religious seasons and holidays. We have evidence that they were concocted by religious leaders rather than directed by God. In the case of Christianity, for example, you can't find anything in the New Testament that specifically lays out religous seasons: rather, it focuses on individual responsibility to live by faith every day. So, do these seasons have value? I may be changing my mind about this.

Wikipedia's article about the origins of Lent tends to confirm my suspicions that it's a "manufactured" season. It dates not to the early church, but to about 400 a.d. It now relates to the period of about 40 days prior to Easter, the day when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected. It is a time for heightened self-evaluation and penitence. The focus is on the example of Jesus, who agonized for 40 days in a bleak wilderness before deciding to begin the ministry that ultimately resulted in his death.

Artificial as they may be, seasons are perhaps useful. All of us can get into personal ruts, trudging down the same worn out paths and making them deeper, and failing to recognize that we are not going to any new places. The seasons have potential to divert our attention, awaken us to our true situation, and help us remember the basic truths of our faith. Advent and Christmas remind us of God's love for the world, and Lent and Easter remind us to respond to that love in a serious way, and hopefully in a more mature way as we grow older.

For the past several months my life has been consumed by duties, often duties that appear on their face to be other-centered and self-giving. But in truth I've been in a rut, doing these things by rote and patting myself on the back for the accomplishments. There has been little joy in the activities and little sense that they've been performed in response to a higher calling. I realized this last night as I attended an Ash Wednesday service commemorating the beginning of Lent. Maybe I need forty days of reflection and a few new activities that will take me off the beaten path and lead me toward some good new places.

So, religious seasons may be artificial and concocted, even materialistic in some of their origins. But the fact that they have existed and prospered in all religions indicates that they must address basic human needs for structure. I guess it's helpful to have a special time to focus on the gift of life and the Giver; a time to focus on the wonder, beauty, and bounty of creation; and, in Lent, a time to focus on whether or not my inner thoughts are worthy of my outward professions and whether or not my feet are following the right paths. Maybe it takes forty days to get though those Lenten questions - forty days out of every year.

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