I've been teaching at a community college for a few years and have therefore had the opportunity to talk to a very wide range of adults: colleagues and students. When they aren't listening to me yammer on in my Spanish classes, I like to chit chat with my students, learn new things, and see various perspectives of the world. This spring, I've really noticed in my conversations and my eavesdropping or hearing bits of side conversations is how many adults (in my workplace, anyway) have misconceptions about the Lenten season.
This site and this one give good explanations of what Lent, Ash Wednesday, and the Lenten season entail.
Ash Wednesday marks the observance of Jesus' 40 day fasting and temptation in the dessert. Christians are marked with ash on their foreheads as a sign of sorrow and humility.
The Lenten Season is the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. If you do the math, you'll see that there are more than 40 days in that time period and so some denominations do not "count" Sundays as part of the 40 days of Lent. The math could also be worked out to show that the Lenten Season ends when Holy Week (the week between Palm Sunday and Easter) begins.
During Lent, many Christians give something up as an exercise in self-denial and sacrifice, mimicking Jesus' sacrifice for us. Many people choose to give up something that will be difficult for them to live without to truly experience the sacrifice. Common things to give up include pop, sweets, TV, etc.
This is where I think the most misconceptions enter - giving something up.
Catholics and Protestants observe Lent and can choose to give something up. Some people assume that if I am giving something up for Lent, I must be Catholic, which I am not.
Lent is not mentioned in any way in the Bible. It is one of those Church-created rituals. Lent is very important and it has many merits but one couldn't really defend Lent with Scripture (although denial and self-sacrifice are noted frequently in Scripture).
To observe Lent, a person does not really have to give something up. Some people choose to add something beneficial to their lives as a way of preparing for the important Easter celebration.
For the first time in many years, I'm giving something up for Lent: chocolate. My chocolate snacking was getting out of hand. I've joked that since I can't reign in my chocolate eating on my own, Jesus is going to help me. Of course, giving something up for Lent simply to benefit yourself health-wise is a bit silly. (Almost) every time I want to grab something chocolate to snack on, I remember Lent and then remember that my itty-bitty sacrifice is nothing compared to the sacrifice of Jesus laying down his life for me. Giving something up for Lent is a great way to prepare a penitent heart for Easter.
Some years in the past, I've given nothing up for Lent. Some years I've tried to add something good into my life. Last year for Lent the kids and I began reading daily devotions at breakfast. I suppose you could say I've "sacrificed" some table space to put our breakfast basket of children's devotion books and Bibles. I'm happy to say that now, a year later, we still do daily devotions. And (almost) every time I open our devotion book I think about our 2011 Lenten add-in, and Jesus' sacrifice for me. Because of Him dying on the cross, I know I'll spend my forever in Heaven.
To an outsider or even a less-than-informed Christian, Lent might seem like it's just ashes and dessert denial, but to me the Lenten Season is an important, reflective time to remind me of the big things yet to come... and the big thing isn't even Easter! Good Friday is, hands down, the most important celebration of the liturgical calendar. That was the day that someone pure and perfect died in my sinful place and because of that day, I'm all taken care of. Denying myself a handful of M&Ms seems so small in light of an event so momentous. And each time I stare wistfully at the chocolate chips in the freezer, I can turn my heart from that desire to thankful repentance.
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