Lent is making a bit of a comeback in contemporary society. Lots of people who otherwise don’t seem to take Christianity all that seriously, are keen to tell us what they’ve given up for Lent. And children, too, are often encouraged to give up something at this time of year.
All of that can be good. After all, we know that we can achieve little in life without self-discipline. So if we want to practise some self-discipline each Spring, that seems wholly unobjectionable, even laudable. But – there is a ‘but’, it seems to me – self-discipline does not itself quite capture the point of Lent. For Lent is a time to empty out a bit of space (both emotional space and temporal space) in our lives in order that God might fill the vacancy that we have created.
The point of Lent, in other words, is not that we give up watching mediocre television, per se, but that we give up watching mediocre television so that we can give more time to saying our prayers or attending a Bible Study. Or, the point of Lent is not that we give up sweets, in itself, but rather that we give up sweets and use the money we save thereby in God’s work – to support the life of the Church, for instance, or to support the work of a charity helping others in difficult circumstances.
Well begun is half done – so the saying goes. It’s certainly true in Lent. To give up something for Lent is to begin well. But if we want to complete the Lenten task (if we want to get to the point of the exercise), we need to allow God to fill the vacancy we have created. If we do that, Lent can change the world for the better – and it can change us too.