Planning on giving up chocolate and going to some of those Friday fish fries?
Christian churches that recognize the liturgical season of Lent can tell you there’s a much deeper meaning to those six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday.
Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of the Lenten season, is coming up Feb. 26, so we asked three clergy members to talk a bit about Lent in their churches, and what they advise to make it a more meaningful experience to carry into the rest of the year.
THE REV. JULIA MELGREEN
‘What I’m hungering for is God’
“I personally love Lent, because I love having a season set apart for spiritual growth,” said the Rev. Julia Melgreen, pastor of First United Methodist Church, Champaign.
The Lenten season works two ways, she said. Giving up something in a consumptive society can reveal something about your own heart, and acquiring new habits — for instance, if you don’t go to church regularly, start doing that during Lent — can help take you deeper into your faith.
“My hope for everybody in the congregation is that they’ll start Lent in one place, and when they get to Easter Sunday, they can say ‘I have made progress in my spiritual life,’” Melgreen said.
The Ash Wednesday service is an invitation to penitence and facing of our mortality, she said, and services throughout Lent will be focusing on disciplines that help deepen faith.
This year, Melgreen said she’s also inviting the congregation to join her for dinner at Harvest Market on Thursdays during Lent and then to fast, as she plans to, on Fridays until dinner.
“The idea is for fasting not to be the goal, but to reveal something to us about our relationship with God and how we can strengthen that,” she said.
In her experience, fasting frees up something in her to pray, Melgreen said.
“It opens up space somehow, in my mind, in my day, and when I’m hungry a little bit, it reminds me that what I’m hungering for is God,” she said.
Melgreen said she considers fasting to be one tool. Spiritual growth also requires scripture reading and worship on a regular basis.
“For Christians, the goal is to look at Jesus’ life, see what he taught and somehow become more like that,” she said.
THE REV. PHILLIP CALLAHAN
‘We save the alleluias for Easter Sunday’
The interim pastor at Danville’s Immanuel Lutheran Church, the Rev. Phillip Callahan said Lent is a prayerful and penitential time of reflection.
“I guess you could call it a good starting time,” he said.
Much like Advent is a time to prepare for Christmas, Lent is a time of preparation to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, the day on which Christianity is built, he said.
What he generally advises to make Lent more meaningful is to focus on Jesus’ ministry, particularly at the end, and come to church, “so we can hear that message,” he said.
Lutherans are also advised to read the Bible more during this time, he said.
The Lutheran church doesn’t ask its members to give up something during Lent, though Lutherans are free to do that, he said.
Lent is both a time of penitential reflection — beginning with Ash Wednesday’s reminder that everyone sins and everyone will die because of sin — and a time of joy, because Christians always look forward to Jesus’ return, Callahan said.
“We always, ever point to Jesus, and that he is the reason that we have real joy in our hearts, even though it is a penitential season,” he said.
It’s a “restrained joy” that is experienced during Lent, Callahan said.
“We don’t sing the alleluias,” he said. “We save the alleluias for Easter Sunday, then we pull out all the stops.”
His church plans to offer an Ash Wednesday service and mid-week services other Wednesdays during Lent until Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter. People coming to those services can also take part in a soup dinner, Callahan said.
THE REV. KYLE LUCAS
‘The church is a home; the church is a mother’
An assistant chaplain at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois, the Rev. Kyle Lucas said Lent for Catholics is a period of preparation for the great Easter mystery of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection.
Catholics are urged to be faithful to three pillars during Lent — prayer, fasting and alms giving — and to form some routine in their lives to focus on them, he said.
There is sacrifice, service and a reflection on our mortality and our own sinfulness, Lucas said, “but the joy is we’re able to rest in God’s mercy and God’s plan of salvation for us.”
Lucas said he encourages giving up something during Lent, but he also likes to think of what he can add in terms of service, outreach to others and prayer.
Sometimes, people get caught up in thinking that what they do for Lent will end at Easter, he said. But he encourages doing something intentional that allows for a more permanent change in habits and daily rhythms and schedules, so spiritual growth can continue beyond Easter.
Eating less chocolate or drinking less coffee during Lent, for example, can help people recognize they don’t actually need those things to function and survive, Lucas said. Intentionally making time for prayer or a bible study during Lent may show there’s space for that in a busy, hectic life.
The Newman Center will offer a lot of opportunities during Lent — Masses, small group bible studies, confession and more — that can be added during Lent and carried forward, he said.
For those who don’t go to church, Lucas urged trying to take one step during Lent, “wherever you are on the journey,” with Ash Wednesday being a good day to take that step back in.
No matter how long it’s been, Lucas said, “the church is a home; the church is a mother, ever always ready to welcome her children in.”