Every culture develops unique calendars to mark important moments in the story that is supposed to shape its members. Considering holidays in America, our calendar teaches us to honor pilgrims, patriots and presidents because they cultivate in us a love of freedom. As the archetypal community, the church has a calendar that transcends all national borders and linguistic barriers.
The church calendar is organized around two primary cycles, between which is “ordinary time.” The incarnational cycle centers around the birth of Jesus, beginning with Advent, climaxing at Christmas and ending with the celebration of Jesus’ baptism on the Sunday following Epiphany. The paschal cycle centers around the death and resurrection of Jesus and is the more important of the two cycles (for there would be no celebration of Christmas were it not for Easter). The paschal cycle includes the season of Lent, Holy Week and Easter, ending with Pentecost.
This year, Valentine’s Day is also Ash Wednesday, the day when Christians mark the beginning of the paschal cycle and the Lenten season with the imposition of ashes. So why do Christians observe Lent? How is it meant to shape the followers of Jesus? At its most basic, Lent is a season of repentance and renewal. We find both aspects mentioned in a prayer for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.” So, on the one hand, we devote ourselves to self-examination, confession of sin and self-denial because we are not the people God created us to be. But on the other hand, our Lenten observance is done in the hope of the Resurrection, in which we become new creations in the person of Jesus Christ. The shaping power of Lent is the practice of authenticity: broken and sinful people embracing forgiveness and healing in Jesus.
To that end, let me encourage you to join with Christians around the world and through the centuries by entering into the shaping power of Lenten practice once again this year. To help you do that, we are providing you with a Lenten Guide that is intended for use by individuals, families and friends to prepare themselves for Easter and to experience the renewing power of Jesus.