Lent: What is it, who's it for and how do you do it?

This Wednesday, Christians around the world will begin their observance of the season of Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday and lasting until the week before Easter Sunday, the Lenten season is 40 days (excluding Sundays). This echoes the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.

Many people have some idea that Lent is about giving things up, but they may not know much more than that. Lent is not meant to be the dour season that we might imagine. Lent began as a time to prepare for Easter celebrations, especially for those who were to be baptized. Later, Lent was geared toward restoring those who had grievously sinned into the fellowship of the church.

In fact, the word “Lent” comes from an Old English word that means “spring season.” Many of us do a spring cleaning of our homes, and I like to think of Lent as a spring cleaning for our souls. You don’t have to be Catholic or to be part of Christian church that observes Lent to make your own journey through the season. Lent can be for everyone. It is, quite simply, a time to focus on how we can be better followers of Jesus.

No one should give up something for Lent for the sake of misery itself. Misery is not God’s desire! Instead, we might give things up that take us away from Jesus to make more room for those things that bring us closer to Jesus. So if I watch too much television, I might give up TV to make more time for prayer, or service of those in need, or even quality time with my family.

The word “Lent” comes from an Old English word that means “spring season.” Many of us do a spring cleaning of our homes, and I like to think of Lent as a spring cleaning for our souls.

Now, in our culture where most of us consume more than we need, the custom of self-denial can be helpful. Again, it’s not about misery. I might fast — that is, skip meals — to remind myself that meals are a gift from God. In so doing, I am reminded that I depend on God, not on things. In other words, giving things up can help me notice that it's not all about me.

Lately, it has become more common to take things on for the season of Lent. People might decide to read the Bible or pray more. But we might also decide to focus on something like forgiveness. How can we practice forgiving others? Who do we need to forgive?

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday as ashes are imposed with a solemn reminder, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or similar words. While it sounds very grim, it is actually a loving reminder that our earthly life is very short, very precious gift. It is God’s desire that we use this gift well. And then, after this reminder, we have a whole season to think about how we can follow Jesus and become more Christlike.

If you have never tried out Lent, or if you grew up with Lent as a season of punishment, give Lent a try this year. There are plenty of resources for Lent online, and your local church can help you journey through the season. This season can be a gift to us. Let us accept the gift of Lent as we seek to grow into the full stature of Christ.