Before we can discuss the nature of Lent, we must first discuss why it is important that Lent is a season. To say that something is a season is to say that it is part of an ever-changing cycle—e.g., winter, spring, summer, fall and so forth. The season of Lent is part of the larger cycle of the church year, which commemorates the events of the Gospel on an annual basis. During Advent, we anticipate Christ’s coming in the flesh; at Christmas, we celebrate the arrival of the incarnation, of God made flesh; during Lent, we anticipate Christ’s death and sufferings; at Easter, we celebrate his joyous resurrection. This cycle is only possible because the Gospel is not a series of point-blank theological statements; rather, it is a story into which Christ invites all of humanity. The practices of the church year, then, allow us to live this story every year. And Lenten practices allow us to better envision our role within this story.
Lent is primarily a time of penitence and of reflection on the death and sufferings of Christ. These two things are intrinsically linked: in order to consider the fullness of what Christ’s death meant, we need a time during which we understand the depth of our own sin. And so, during Lent, we approach Christ with humble submission, being especially cognizant of our own brokenness. Through such penitence, we are better able to understand where we fit into the narrative of Christ’s death—as the fallen people for whom he died. Furthermore, we understand not only on an individual basis, but also en masse through shared penitence with the entire Church. And we reflect on our shared human brokenness not simply for the sake of fixating on sin, but that we might understand the magnitude of Christ’s death.
In other words, the context for penitence is always and only under the shadow of the cross. We already know the end of the story—the promise of the resurrection—and therefore cannot fall into a despair which rejects all hope. And yet, during Lent, we assume the posture of Mary, weeping at the foot of the cross for the death of her son. We too must mourn Christ’s death in this manner, with the full knowledge that Christ suffers on our behalf.
So how do Lenten practices of giving things up fit into this picture? Through practicing self-denial, we consider the crucial role of self-sacrifice in the Christian story, with the primary image of self-sacrifice being the cross. Furthermore, the things we let go of give us an opportunity to be more acutely aware of how we are to long for Christ. By denying ourselves of certain desires, we become all the more aware of those desires and are better prepared to prayerfully redirect them toward Christ, who is the true fulfillment of all desire.