by Tsh Oxenreider
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
Why bother observing Lent? After all, it’s not in the Bible and Jesus never told us to do it. This was my posture for most of my adult life.
I was raised by loving parents who made sure we attended our evangelical, non-denominational Protestant church almost weekly. The two biggest holidays of the year at the church were—you guessed it—Christmas and Easter, with the latter, in my young mind, significantly less important than its companion. Every Easter was a magnificent production with music (sometimes orchestral) and an evangelization-focused sermon, pastel outfits aplenty, and crowds of extra visitors. But in all my years, I never recall recognizing Lent. “Lent” was a foreign word reserved for the loftier Christians, our Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic counterparts.
It wasn’t until I began dipping my toes into a more liturgical approach to the Christian life that I understood more about the purpose of Lent. And it wasn’t until I began reading the words of ancient Christians themselves that I realized just how old a tradition it was. For nearly 2,000 years (almost as old as the Church itself), Christians have observed Lent as a season of fasting and preparation for the season of feasting that follows, called Eastertide (which is technically a full 50 days — so, even longer than Lent’s 46 days). As part of the liturgical calendar, which is the Church’s time-honored tradition of marking time, Lent invites us to participate in a trifecta of practices that we can fold into our daily lives: fasting, prayer, and giving.
Most of us are fine with an occasional indulgence of dessert, a pizza for dinner, or one late night out with little sleep. If we miss a day of exercise or drink a bit too much wine for a few days, our surprisingly resilient bodies will recover. The deliciousness of pizza and the enjoyment of an evening celebration with friends are a few delights of life, and God saw fit to create the world with bountiful opportunities for joy and the occasional indulgence. But we know well what would happen if those indulgences were our mainstay, the normal daily practices of our ordinary life. Our bodies would drag with the effects of our choices: bloating, headache, sluggishness, crankiness, and worse. Keep it up, and eventually our bodies would become addicted to these excesses and let us know when they demanded more—always more, and more, until we tell it no.
These physical delights, which can so quickly spoil if overused, reflect the fragility of our souls as well; when we indulge our inner life with the sugars of laziness, complacency, or downright pride, our innermost self starts to atrophy. In his letter to the early Christians in Corinth, Paul writes to them, “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27). Christ has not called us to a life of ease—we’re called to discipline.
As followers of Christ, if we’re athletes using our gifts, skills, and strengths to aim our lives toward an imperishable prize, a practice like Lent could be seen as a season of intense working out. Like Olympians before the worldwide games, we’re focused, determined, and ready to win the prize. Lent doesn’t earn our place in the game of life, but it makes us more ready for it. As one writer puts it, “It’s the spiritual equivalent of choosing to pick up the kettlebell instead of the Chex Mix, and it will have similar benefits to your soul.”
Lent is now something I genuinely look forward to in the dark final days of winter, a few months after we return the Christmas decor to the attic and just in time for my springtime eagerness. It’s a different eagerness than the anticipation of Christmas because it’s different from how our household celebrates Advent; after all, the Lenten season is longer, less culturally festive, darker, and more penitent. But every year that we recognize the ancient season, the more my modern-day sensibilities crave it. I feel the need for Lent in my bones. It may be an antiquated tradition, but our modern culture needs it more than ever.
Ultimately, we recognize the season of Lent before Easter not because God demands it of us, because Christ commanded it to prove our mettle, or because we must perfect ourselves before we’re worthy of Easter. We observe Lenten practices because they’re good for us.
In a world that celebrates indulging our whims whenever we want, it’s countercultural to practice the traditions of Lent. Welcoming the temporary suffering of Lent is swimming upstream in a culture that prefers to go with the flow. But as GK Chesterton once quipped, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” In other words, to go against the current is to be alive. We can choose to live the paradoxical Christian life because we’ve been given new life in Christ, which gives us the faith, hope, and strength to do so.
Tsh Oxenreider is the bestselling author of several books, a travel guide, teacher, and podcaster. She lives in Georgetown, Texas, with her husband and three children. She is equally happy snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef with her family and putzing around her own backyard. Find Tsh online at tshoxenreider.com. This article is adapted from her latest devotional book: Bitter & Sweet: A Journey into Easter (Harvest House, 2022).