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GEN-X RISING: Lent: an old concept that holds new value Andrew C. Thompson, Mar 3, 2011
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
It’s probably not a word you’ve heard recently. But to English-speakers a thousand years ago, it was the everyday word for “spring.” As Old English evolved into Middle English, lencten became leinte. And as Middle English continued to change into the language we speak today, the word eventually became lent.
We don’t use lent as a way to say “spring” anymore. But we do use it to refer to a season of the Christian calendar that overlaps with springtime itself.
I’m talking about the season of Lent, of course. It is the 40-day period leading up to Easter. Lent is a time when Christians have traditionally prepared for the great holiday of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead by engaging in disciplined practices such as fasting and intentional times of prayer.
Just as Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness prepared him for his public ministry, the 40 days of Lent prepare us for the event that culminated his time on earth and inaugurated the church’s public ministry in the world.
Ah, but Lent seems hopelessly out of step with the modern world. Our culture just isn’t very conducive to any kind of disciplined practice. And fasting? Good luck.
Contemporary culture worships at the altar of innovation. We have a never-ending hunger for the “new.” We assume that the latest version of anything must surely be better than the older version.
Companies that market consumer products play into this cultural addiction. Whether it’s candy, cars, or computers, advertisers want you to know that the product on offer now is much, much better than the one that was available yesterday.
This kind of thing can get plain ridiculous. The company that makes my razor wants me to buy a new version that fits five razor blades on the head of its razor—you know, just to make sure that every whisker is cut as close as possible. I’m not sure what that fifth razor blade is going to catch that was missed by the first four, but . . . oh, never mind.
In a world where we are fast approaching a half-dozen blades on a single razor, how could a concept as old as Lent ever hope to compete? The very name itself sounds strangely archaic—which it is, of course—and the season of the Christian year it describes is even older.
Most of us today want our Christianity on-the-go. We don’t have time to do much more than get to church on Sundays. Asking ourselves to commit to a real (gasp!) discipline is simply beyond the pale.
Actually, I think we are seeing signs that people in our culture are tiring of the insatiable hunger for the new. We should at least ask ourselves whether we have found anything truly redemptive in the past few decades of conspicuous consumption. Has it made us happy, in the deepest sense of that word?
My guess is that for most people the answer is “no.” Our problem is that we don’t know how to take our foot off the gas pedal. Advertisers tell us what we ought to want, and the satisfaction-is-just-a-mouse-click-away ease of the Internet age keeps our brains occupied with little synaptic spurts of pleasure.
But it’s not real happiness. It’s a mirage that has made us think we should be satisfied with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs when there’s filet mignon to be had.
Here’s where Lent invites a serious reconsideration. The purpose of Lent is to prepare us for what God is doing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Witnessing that work on Easter Sunday will surely elicit praise and worship from us. But it calls first for deep preparation that will give us a greater understanding of the mystery of resurrection.
Through the disciplined preparation of Lent, we can start to catch a glimpse of a life lived according to something other than the ever-shifting winds of culture. That life finds value not in the new but in the old—in the ancient, in fact. The life of discipleship is not about innovation; it’s about the renovation of our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And that’s a possibility worth slowing down for.