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Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Chocolate

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, March 6 | Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.– 1 Peter 1:13 NRSV

Sandra Jacobson was Messiah's church secretary when Kathy and I first arrived at Messiah. She was one of God's gifts to this congregation and Kathy and me as she taught all of us many essential lessons before she retired. Sandra once advised me—probably on a day when she knew I was in trouble with Kathy—that chocolate makes women happier, healthier, and forgiving. She taught me a lot.

Although she had considerable personal affection for chocolate, one of Sandy's annual traditions was to stop eating it during Lent. Her motive wasn't to be less happy or healthful during this 40-day season. Instead, it was an exercise in self-restraint that gave the days leading to Easter more meaning, a daily discipline that heightened her awareness of our Lord's presence in her life.

Perhaps you too can recall your own or others' traditions of self-imposed disciplines for Lent. But why do we give something up or add something that is good into our daily discipline during this time? What is this church season that begins on February 22 all about? With these questions in mind, here is my every-so-often refresher on Lent.

The season is derived from a pattern used in the first centuries of the church for persons preparing to be baptized. They fasted and received instruction in the Christian faith for 40 days before their baptism day. The teaching method was an oral question and answer format, a process later copied by the writers of many Christian catechisms, including those in the Lutheran church.

When Christianity became the dominant state-endorsed religion of the western world under Constantine, Lent was formalized into a 40-day period of preparation for all Christians in anticipation of Easter. By the 11th century, the church added Ash Wednesday—a day when ashes were used as a sign of public penitence—as the first day of Lent. (Ash Wednesday is always 40 days—excluding Sundays—before Easter.) When the Lutheran movement began in the 16th century, Luther and his fellow reformers adopted the Lenten calendar they inherited but returned the emphasis of the season to catechetical instruction and review.

Lent continues to be a season of penitence, of heightened reflection on the quality of one's faith, of exercising new personal disciplines as a way of reminding ourselves of the season, and a time for catechetical instruction. Most Lutheran congregations offer additional mid-week services throughout the season. We still find it meaningful and useful.

Luther had a maxim for determining whether something was useful in the life of a Christian and of the Church. He said, "Whatever brings Christ home." Refraining from eating chocolate might not seem like a religious thing to do, nor would giving up television or abstaining from fast food. It's not that any of these are inherently distracting to one's spiritual walk. The wisdom in practice is that each time one "does without" Christ is "brought home," and one is again reminded that Jesus is Lord.

I invite you to consider adding a personal, self-imposed discipline this Lenten season (March 6–April 20). I also encourage you to participate in Messiah's Lenten observances that begin with Ash Wednesday service on March 6 at 10:00a and 7:00p, continue with mid-week Wednesday services at 6:00p using the well-beloved Haugen Evening Prayer as the order for worship, and conclude with a full schedule of Holy Week worship opportunities culminating with Easter on April 21.

Forty days of personal discipline is not apt to hurt too much. Attending mid-week Lenten services for the sake of your spiritual walk won't bankrupt your time. Throughout the centuries Christians have discovered that the pay-off for these disciplines is an appreciation of our Lord's cross and empty tomb that is always new, always transforming, always saving. You'll be happier, healthier, and discover anew the depths to which God will go to demonstrate God's forgiveness and mercy.

Mid-Week Schedule for Lent
Wednesdays, March 13-April 10
4:45-5:30p - Godly Play (3 years to 5th grade)
5:00-5:45p - Soup supper in lower level
6:00-6:30p - Worship
6:30-7:00p - Service project for all ages
6:30-7:00p - Quiet prayer time in chapel
7:00-8:30p - Messiah Worship Choir

Sundays during Lent
8:30-9:40a - Youth Ensemble​

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