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To Lent or Not to Lent

I’ve noticed an interesting trend over the course of the last decade or so: the stealthy backward creep of Christmas. In my American childhood home, there was a strict ban on all things Christmas until at least Thanksgiving, which happens toward the end of November. I still cling tenaciously to that rule as an adult, but I’ve noticed that many of my countrymen—both sets, American and British—are succumbing to Christmas fever earlier and earlier each year. Last year, Tesco put out their Christmas fare in early September! Early September, people!

We can obviously blame the over-Christmasing on rampant consumerism and the commercialization of Christmas etc. etc, but I have become increasingly aware in recent years that we Christians, even those of us who still vigilantly celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, often still have our Christian holidays a little bit out of whack.

I think most of us would agree that Easter is a more significant holiday to Christians than Christmas. I mean, the Incarnation is wildly important, but it would’ve been rendered pointless without the Resurrection. These two events are the one-two punch of the Christian faith, but of the two, Easter is definitely the right hook.

I know, we’ve heard it all before—we should celebrate Easter more than we should celebrate Christmas. We know this, and many of us make strides to emphasise Easter in our lives, in both our private and corporate expressions of faith. I have personally observed Lent for many years, and have always found it a useful way to recalibrate my life toward Jesus.

For those of us who don’t know, you won’t find Lent in the Bible. It’s an ancient church tradition observed by many of the more liturgically-leaning churches. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, lasts for 40 days and finishes on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. It represents the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness before the start of his public ministry. Christians often choose something (television, caffeine, chocolate) to give up during Lent as a means of drawing nearer to God.

I grew up Baptist, and didn’t know about Lent until I was in my late 20s. Now that I know about it, I like Lent. I like it a lot. But I haven’t observed Lent for a few years now. A couple of those years we can chalk up to my own Dark Night of the Soul, and a general lack of the kind of spiritual vigor that would lead someone to fast for Lent. Last year, though, I made a conscious choice not to celebrate Lent even though I had (by God’s good grace) emerged from the darkness.

Part of the reason I emerged from the darkness was a book called Surprised by Hope, by Tom Wright (a.k.a. NT Wright for the theology nuts out there). It was the first Christian book I’d read outside the Bible in a couple of years, and if you’ve read it you’ll know that it’s not exactly the Easy-Read, Baby Food, Just-Back-from-the-Brink sort of book you’d recommend to someone who’s recovering from spiritual trauma. This puppy is philosophically dense and raises some challenging questions about what the church believes about the resurrection and our own experience of eternity. For all that, though, it was the perfect book for me.

Not everyone will necessarily agree with the nuances of Tom Wright’s interpretation of scripture regarding the resurrection and eternity. What I think most of us WOULD agree with, however, is the reason I decided not to observe Lent last year (and won’t be observing it this year, at least). Wright makes the point that I’ve made above, though he makes it much more eloquently, that Easter is generally under-celebrated. The resurrection changed literally everything. It made all good things possible. It is the hinge of history, and if we had a firm grasp on what happened on that first Easter Sunday, we would be dancing in the streets, partying for weeks, out of our minds with glee. Instead, those of us who observe Lent spend the 40 days before Easter denying ourselves of pleasures and luxuries, only to get to Easter Sunday just thankful that we can “get back to normal” and hoover up some Cadbury’s Mini Eggs before they disappear from the shelves.

What if, Wright says, instead of celebrating Easter by meditating for a few hours on the resurrection, singing a few joyous songs and then “getting back to normal”…what if instead of all that, we do what Jesus did and celebrate Easter by putting good things into the world?

Easter wasn’t a restoration of the norm—it was the infusion of Eternity into a previously finite world! It was the introduction of Forever Life into humanity’s death-bound soul! It was the ground splitting, enemy squashing, hallelujah inducing culmination of the greatest rescue operation that ever was or ever will be! Why are we not on our feet, whooping with joy and punching the air? Stop right now and do some air punching, please. I can wait.

So if God chose to inaugurate Easter by putting good things into the world, why can’t we?

Last Easter, I started giving to a charity that works to clean up Britain’s beaches, keeping plastic out of the ocean. (Looking after the earth is a big part of Wright’s interpretation of the resurrection and eternity, so it was on my mind at the time and still is.) But putting good things into the world in celebration of Easter can look any way you want it to. Maybe it’s time to start financially supporting that missionary or charitable organisation. Maybe it’s time to start that prayer group for Southeast Asia. Maybe you’ve wanted to take piano lessons or get an allotment—do it in celebration of the day that Jesus made all things new!

This Easter, make a commitment to put something good into God’s world, and tell people why you’re doing it. We are resurrection people. New Life People. By all means, observe Lent. Some of the best people I know do. But at the end of Lent, don’t “get back to normal”. Celebrate! Let’s be known as the people who make the world a better place because of Jesus.