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The world is turning to Lent in record numbers. But why? Isn’t it just an outdated Catholic attempt to demonise chocolate?  As enlightened people who live by grace, why would we get involved?

Lent provides an opportunity for us to reset.

It’s a call to refocus, reflect and refresh our souls. A 40-day commitment to the “time out” we need.

And this is not just a religious yearning. “Lenten” practises have grown in popularity over the past couple of years – Mindfulness May focuses on mental health; Ocsober, Dry July and FebFast suggest giving up alcohol or sugar to kickstart body and mind while raising funds for others.

Lent, though, is unique in that it combines body and soul to concentrate on spiritual growth. Like its Islamic counterpart, Ramadan, Lent emphasises reflection and generosity, driven by a conscious turning to God and others. It calls us to slow down; to become aware of our bodies as well as our hearts and minds.

At the end of Lent, we’re different. We’ve tended the soil ready for new life.

Lent is as old as the Church itself. In 300AD, the Nicaean Council (from which the Nicaean Creed developed) referred to the forty days leading up to Holy Week as a special time of preparation for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Commemorating the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, it imagined that people would pray, fast, give and celebrate.

The preface written to the very first Lenten Mass puts it nicely:

Each year you give us this joyful season
when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery
with mind and heart renewed.

You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father,
and of willing service to our neighbor.

As we recall the great events that gave us a new life in Christ,
you bring to perfection within us the image of your Son.

And while Lent is most often associated with the Catholic tradition, it’s always been an Ecumenical practise. The Church of East and West were united at the time of the Nicaean Council that gave it life, and more than a billion Christians worldwide are on board every year. Some Evangelicals and Pentecostals have been suspicious of spiritual disciplines as an attempt to buy God’s favour, but Lent has evolved with us to represent far more than empty rule keeping. It’s an increasingly well recognised part of the Christian calendar, and growing in popularity as secularism and commercialism continue to cannibalise the meaning of Christmas and Easter.

What could you do for Lent?

Reflect: Set time aside to meet with others and explore the Scriptures using some of the many excellent resources available.

Say sorry: Repentance is a central part of the Lenten tradition. Most of us aren’t great at apologising, but there’s bound to be someone who would benefit from our confessing where we’ve failed. At the same time, take the opportunity to forgive someone. It’s good for everyone.

Sit with grief: The lead up to Jesus’ death saw his friends and family grappling with the vacuum soon to be left in their lives. While most of us prefer to ‘move on’ from difficulty, our loss, sorrow and suffering are no less real for our efforts to distract ourselves. Setting aside time to acknowledge our grief nurtures self awareness, gratitude and compassion for ourselves and others.

Fast: early Lenten practices encouraged fasting with the idea that hunger increased our awareness of our bodies and cultivated a sense of gratitude. These days, people fast from all sorts of things, from impatience to social media to caffeine. It’s the impact of fasting that matters – how does it stimulate our awareness of ourselves and our world? Find ideas about what to give or take up here.

Be generous: Lent is designed to sharpen our focus and extend it beyond ourselves and our own concerns. It’s about making space in your mind and heart for those around you. Extending generosity by setting aside some of your financial resources for others can have a big impact.

UnitingWorld is the part of the Uniting Church with the privilege of nurturing relationships with our global church family, and we love the season of Lent! Through Lent Event, we provide a Bible Study series to help you think through what it means to be a global neighbour, and encourage you to take action with a 40-day challenge to give or take up something that helps make the world a better place. With stories that show how your prayers and gifts are building hope and ending poverty around the world, we aim to cultivate generosity, compassion and awareness of others.

If you’re ready to take a new look at Lent, go for a deep dive online to find resources, and check out www.lentevent.com.au for simple ways to get involved.