Observance of Lent is booming across the U.S., especially among non-traditional groups including many evangelical and emergent churches. Even Catholic parishes nationwide are seeing a rise in season-long observances. This makes sense in an era of turbulent change in our world. A return to spiritual practices—from praying daily to following the centuries-old traditions of Lent—is a journey that reconnects us with the timeless wisdom of our faith.
This sacred season recalls the heart of the Gospels that 2 billion Christians around the world regard as a sacred guide to living, so the diversity of our Lenten experience may seem surprising. Eastern and Western Christians sometimes converge on the same Lenten calendar; sometimes they are weeks apart, due to differences in calculating the date of Easter each year. Western Christians, those from the branches of the Christian tree that grew from Rome and branched out through the Reformation, count Lent’s 40 days as starting with Ash Wednesday but excluding Sundays. Eastern Christians, those generally called Orthodox, start their 40 days on a Monday, counting Sundays, but excluding the week leading up to Easter.
Some Christians fast; some don’t. Millions of Western Christians retain a custom of limited fasting; millions of Eastern Christians follow a far more ambitious set of fasting traditions. Many Christians prayerfully make significant sacrifices during this season, while others have barely acknowledged the season throughout most of their lives.
So, why is this season rising in popularity? As a careful observer of religious life over the past three decades, I believe that Lent is the perfect Christian season for this 21st century era of change, anxiety and spiritual transformation. Uncluttered by the commercial avalanche that has all but buried the Advent season that leads to Christmas, Lent retains much of its ancient religious potential. That’s why Mel Gibson struck such a huge cultural nerve with his controversial film, The Passion of the Christ.
University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne E. Baker, in his landmark study “America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception,” used the massive global waves of data from the World Values Survey to demonstrate the unusual nature of American religious values. Compared with other global cultures, Baker showed that Americans are unique: We are so overwhelmingly religious that we resemble countries like Iran in our spiritual intensity. But, when it comes to values concerning self-expression, Americans surpass Scandinavians in our zeal. We are people of deep faith coupled with an equally deep desire to freely share our religious experiences.
In such an era, Lent is the perfect, untarnished blend of religious tradition and spiritual adventure—ancient roots still blossoming in self-reflection and self-expression. Or, to put it another way, Lent is the Lord of the Rings of scriptural stories—a loyal fellowship of men and women fearlessly summoning all of their traditional knowledge as they make their way toward a dangerous encounter in a city where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Yet, unlike J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, each of us is invited to make our own Lenten pilgrimage each year. That’s how millions of Christians experience the season—preparing their hearts, minds and daily lives in fresh ways for this epic quest. Thousands of churches now distribute devotional books to help shape the Lenten journey. The core of this season is a life-changing, personal and communal encounter with the sacred.
Now, many religious leaders are aware of Lent’s rising popularity and are hoping to make fresh connections among this vast array of scattered pilgrims. In this Our Lent devotional book—and online materials available at: http://www.OurLent.info—we are providing 40 days of reflections, connecting things in the Gospels’ climactic journey of Jesus with things we carry in our own lives today. The big picture behind Our Lent is this: Jesus’ journey 2,000 years ago was a public pilgrimage of such profound importance that we mark it each year, day by day, even in the opening of the third millennium since Jesus walked the Earth. Rather than leaving such a powerful religious narrative locked inside individual churches and individual lives—we are moving the Lenten adventure back into the biggest public roadway of our time: the creatively flexible digital world. For example, we invite you to visit us online to learn more about opportunities to order quantities of this book with the possibility of personalizing a “group read” for your congregation by putting your church’s logo on the cover of the copies you order. You can even add your own introductory pages to this book for your church or organization. Plus, you can enjoy Our Lent on any digital reader you carry, including a Kindle, Nook, iPad or iPhone. Our Lent materials also will be added throughout the season to our website. This Our Lent experience now is as adaptable and portable as the original journey 2,000 years ago.
Some of the things we will encounter in these 40 days are spiritual ideas that Jesus conveyed to his followers, for example: In the second chapter of our journey, which draws from Matthew 20:29-34, we join Jesus in encountering two blind men—and an even more profound blindness in the crowd surrounding this pair. It’s a brief but fascinating encounter in the Gospels and reflects on how we, as Christians today, disregard the marginalized along our own highways. While some things along this journey are scenes and lessons, most of the things in our 40-chapter journey are quite tangible things: coins, basins, bowls, bread, cups, swords and tables, to name a few. This was the stuff of Jesus’ world. It’s still the stuff of our lives, 2,000 years after Jesus’ world-shaking walk to Jerusalem.
This year, come along. Walk with us.
Invite a friend to accompany you.
You’re already carrying things.
Help us to lighten the load.
—David Crumm, Founding Editor, ReadTheSpirit.com