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From the Wilderness into New Life: Everyone Can Participate in Lent

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From the Wilderness into New Life: Everyone Can Participate in Lent

Commentary by Walter Hesford | FāVS News

Everyone loves to participate in Mardi Gras, on the brink of Lent, but only some Christians observe Lent itself.

Mardi Gras gets its name from the consumption of fat (in French, “gras”) on the Tuesday (in French, “Mardi”) before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, during which time Christians were supposed to fast or at least refrain from the eating of meat. Hence all the fats in Christian communities were eaten on Mardi Gras.

Most people now associate Mardi Gras with parades, costumes and partying, though sometimes fat consumption occurs. My church has a pancake and sausage supper.

The next day we go to church to have our forehead marked with a cross of ashes, a practice followed in many Christian churches. This reminds us that “you are dust, and to dust to you shall return” (Genesis 3: 19), and begins a 40-day period of repentance up until the brink of Easter, excluding Sundays.

The 40-day length is grounded in an event in Jesus’ life right after his baptism: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13).

I always considered Lent a time to slow down and thought the word “Lent” was connected to the Italian word “lento,” used on musical scores to designate that the musicians should play slowly. In fact, my American Heritage Dictionary informs me that “Lent” derives from “lencten,” an Old English term for “lengthening,” and refers to the lengthening of days in spring. So Lent is also a spring festival.

The Different Aspects of Lent

Lent thus offers a cluster of possibilities: fasting — or at least giving up something for Lent; repenting; joining Jesus in a wilderness experience; and experiencing the lengthening of days. Can everyone take part?

Let’s consider fasting first. Not my cup of tea, but many do it for health reasons. And many religions suggest it as a form of spiritual discipline. In its “Lenten Prayers for an End to World Hunger,” Bread for the World, a faith-based organization that advocates nationally and globally for hunger relief, suggests that we donate the money from our fast to a hunger relief program and also write to our members of Congress, urging them “to support policies to reduce and end hunger.” Everyone can do this.

Repentance, in my Christian tradition, involves asking forgiveness for not loving God with all one’s heart and not loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Not everyone would be comfortable doing this, though maybe everyone should turn their attention to the needs of their neighbors from time to time.

Repentance, at its roots, calls for us to turn or change our thoughts (“-pense”) and hearts back (“re-“). Back to what? For Christians, it will be God; for others, it may be some other foundation. This change, if real, should result in action, such as caring for the welfare of others, working for peace and social justice or cultivating well one’s own mind and garden.

From the Wilderness into New Life

How about joining Jesus in the wilderness during Lent? Jesus’ wilderness experience is a time of preparation for preaching and embodying the reign of God. Imperial Satanic forces do not want God to reign so tempt Jesus to forgo a confrontation with the “principalities and powers of this world.” (Ephesians 6:12) This confrontation will result in the crucifixion of Jesus.

What spirit might lead us into our wilderness? What temptations, wild beasts and angels might we find there? How might our time there prepare us for our future? Maybe we will emerge from our wilderness experience ready to work against the imperial forces that oppress us now and for spiritual or physical liberation.

During everyone’s Lent we inevitably experience the lengthening of days, the increase of warmth and light. We might think of ways we want to grow along with the new green life spreading before us.

But let’s take it lento (slowly) so that strong roots can form and that the Lenten spirit can sustain us throughout the year.


The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.

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Edward Walker
Edward Walker
1 month ago

Thank you Sir for this fine article. Lent is an opportunity for spiritual transformation and is truly a fast, a time of self-restraint and detachment. I feel we must all enter the wilderness and come out of it stronger and grown, spiritually. It seems that you accept this “wilderness” as a metaphor for this process, analogous or identical to the wilderness wandering of the Israelites for 40 years, and perhaps the 40 days of the great rain event, and other places where this period of 40 and some time signature appended to it appears. Grateful for your insights.

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