By: Paul Ward, Spiritual Life Coordinator, Youth Opportunity Center—
Muncie, IN—The signs of Easter are everywhere. Stores are covered in pastel colored designs. Chocolate eggs are on every shelf. Churches are practicing Easter plays. Lilies and daffodils will soon be in bloom. Even though the date of Easter changes, we never seem to miss it.
There’s one sign that many of us don’t think about or even know about. Forty-six days before Easter, there will be an unmistakable sign. Many people will be walking around town with dark smudges on their foreheads. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the smudge will be in the shape of a cross. But why?
Many around the world participate in an observance called Ash Wednesday. (In 2019, Ash Wednesday is March 6th.) This is a day where we remember the words from Ecclesiastes 3:10. We came from dust and we will return to dust. Our lives are finite and fragile. We must learn to depend on someone else, something else. This practice is held mostly by Christians, but there are many non-Christians who practice it as well. Ash Wednesday starts the season of Lent. This season is all about anticipating Easter. Anticipating hope.
What is Lent?
During this season, individuals around the world fast. The word “fast” typically means to not eat or to eat very little. It’s like when your doctor asks you to fast for 12 hours before a blood test. This practice has been common in Christianity for over a thousand years. The goal is to fast from specific foods for a forty day period leading up to Easter. The reason it begins forty-six days before is because you don’t fast on Sundays.
Recently, Lent practices have begun to change. Many Christians have started fasting things other than food. Some people have decided to give up things like television or social media. The idea is to sacrifice something that would be a challenge. In today’s world of fad diets, a lot of people are used to giving up food related things. Giving up Facebook isn’t always as easy.
Fasting seems to be the main focus of Lent, but it’s not the only piece. When you take something away, you’re supposed to add something else in. For some this is more time in prayer or meditation. Others spend extra time volunteering or giving to charities. The goal here isn’t just to take something away, but to replace the time, energy, and resources spent on that thing with something else more positive.
There are significant benefits to those who participates in these practices. Fasting from food can have physical health benefits as well as psychological health benefits. Doctors have patients fast for various health related reasons all the time. Many diets start their program out with a “cleanse” to get the body shifted into a more healthy mode.
The things that get added in can be beneficial as well. There are plenty of studies out there to show how meditation or prayer plays a role in overall wellbeing. Those who regularly practice are likely to have improved physical and mental health markers. Those who spend time helping others report feeling less depressed and a greater sense of purpose.
Lent can be good for the individual both from a spiritual and personal perspective. There is also a strong community benefit. When we participate in a ritual we often feel closer to others who are participating in the same ritual. It tightens are community bonds. We can begin to feel as if we’re on the same page and moving in the same direction.
Our community also notices a change. When individuals put down their cell phones and help pass out coats, our community changes. When someone donates food to the pantry because they won’t be eating it, our community changes. When we begin to realize that we our lives are finite and fragile and we begin to depend on one another, our community changes. That change leads us to the hope of Easter.
What could you do this year to prepare for hope? To make space in your own life for the hope that Easter brings? What could you sacrifice that would help bring a positive change to your family, to your neighbors, and to your community?