How to Observe Lent?
The first and fundamental way to observe Lent is to meditate on God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. The place to start is not the fast, but the feast.
The point of fasting, Jesus said, was the future feast. God isn’t testing our willpower or lording our failures over us in Lent. Instead, he is helping us become opened up to an even greater understanding of his love and grace so that we can see our true sicknesses and be healed. And all of this is in preparing for the final great feast, when heaven comes to earth and all fasting ends. The bridegroom has returned.
So as you observe Lent, and lead your church and family to observe it, don’t start with an emphasis on willpower, self-denial or humiliation. Start with God’s love and grace. It would be terrifying to repent before a graceless god. But it can become a joy to repent before our gracious Lord.
Second, find the date of Ash Wednesday and hold a worship service that day. This service is usually very short, simple and quiet. Often there is no music. The goal is to allow space for us to be in the presence of God with an intention to begin a time of honesty with him. The Ash Wednesday service can be found online in the Book of Common Prayer.
On a practical note, before you impose the ashes, add some oil to them so they stick. The ashes are often made from burning the dried palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.
Third, encourage the congregation to give something up, and give something away during Lent. This is a simple communal discipline that allows us to observe our own reaction to living without something good for a few weeks. It is important that we not give up something that is already bad for us. That isn’t a fast, it’s a diet. A fast is giving up something good in order to focus our attention on God. Giving away challenges us to give to others. As Isaiah wrote, the fast that God desires is to reach out and lift burdens off of others.
Lenten disciplines are observed every day from Ash Wednesday through Holy Week except Sundays. Keep in mind that in the historic church calendar, Sundays are always feast days. You don’t ever fast on a Sunday, because it is the day of the Lord’s resurrection. Sometimes people think that they can be extra repentant, or super spiritual, by fasting also on Sundays. Remind your congregation that Sunday is a festival day, and that powering through it with a super fast is more likely to distract us from true repentance than to point us to it. It becomes more about my willpower and less about God’s grace.
Fourth, encourage people to fast on Fridays. Fasting does not always mean abstaining completely from all food. Going back to the days of the early church, this fast was often abstaining from all meat, or a fast from one meal of the day. There is not one correct way to fast. But it may help to give your congregation some guidelines if this is all new. And, of course, keep in mind that the young and old, and those with health conditions should be encouraged to fast only in ways that do not compromise their health. God made the fast for man, not man for the fast.
Fifth, encourage the reading of Scripture and of the Church Fathers and Mothers during Lent. This is a great way to get back into reading the Bible, and to encourage each other with words from our spiritual forebears.
Finally, keep preaching grace. Repentance, forgiveness, restoration and honesty with God and each other never come through guilt or shame. John the Baptist cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus came to save, not to condemn. While it is important to us to always confess our sins, humble ourselves and recognize our mortality, we do this in order to receive a greater understanding of God’s love. It is all about the feast, not the fast. Keep pointing to Good Friday and Easter!
After Easter, ask folks to testify about how their experience of Lent prepared them for the celebration of Easter Day.