Our spring 2016 themes of Letting Go, Grace, and Salvation converge in the season of Lent, the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, when adherents emphasize self-discipline, sober reflection, prayer, and charity.
Those who did not grow up with Lent might know it mainly – or only – for its emphasis on self-denial, the practice of giving up a vice or pleasure as a way of “mortifying the flesh.” Indeed, the somber tone of the season is set by its opening rite – the imposition of ashes on the forehead, along with the admonition, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Beneath this talk of denial and death, however, is the life-affirming truth that as long as we do draw breath, we have options. The gift of Lent is not the thing cast off, but the thing taken up in its place. Letting go of old habits frees up time, money, and energy that we can channel into better pursuits, including ministry to others, building of community, attention to our health, and a deepening of our spiritual practice. In that sense, Lent becomes a spiritual laboratory for exploring alternate ways of being in the world. The lessons learned along the way are gifts of grace.
This grace finds its ultimate expression in the glorious eruption of new life that is the focus of Easter Sunday. For orthodox Christianity, that new life is the salvation bought by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But even those who do not take the Gospel as literal truth can find meaning in a Lenten practice and realize salvation that is, if not absolute and eternal, nonetheless powerful as an incremental redemption of the here and now.