Today is Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnival and Mardi Gras before the start of the Lenten season. For many the tradition behind Fat Tuesday has long been forgotten and for others still it was never known. Years ago today was the last day of symbolic merriment that began on the Feast of Epiphany and ended tonight before the stricter and more subdued period of Lent began with Ash Wednesday and was observed until Easter. In today’s culture it is just another Tuesday only it might have some extra beads, a slice of king cake and a party or two tonight for no reason other than it’s Mardi Gras and there are 2 for 1 specials at TGI Friday’s.
For Christians it should have a whole other meaning.
Few outside the Orthodox and Catholic traditions observe Lent and even for many who do profess some observance of the season, they do so only marginally or with no real purpose or deliberate design. Lent is the time when many give up M&M’s, soda, chocolate or something that is equally trivial in our modern lives as a token gesture of self-denial to “be more like Christ” as we near Easter. As if going without that extra candy or giving up a Mocha Latte somehow puts us on par with the suffering and death of our Lord.
I propose we are better than that.
I suggest that all Christians, even those of us who identify with the Protestant traditions, should recognize and observe the Lenten season. Only we should do so in a new way that for some might seem a bit radical, however is not the very event of Easter a radical proposition? Lent is a time to reflect on what exactly Easter means to those of us who profess to be Christians. That Christ freely gave his life for us and in doing so completely changed how we can have a relationship with God. Easter is the ultimate game changer.
John 10:10 tells us that “I am come that they might have life, and might have [it] abundantly”. (Darby Translation) While Lent and Easter are about the death of Christ on the cross; if we simply focus our attention there we miss the entire point. Christ died and then rose again so we might have life. And not just a plain old boring, run of the mill life. No, not at all, he came and died so we might have a life more abundant. Lent is a time to commit to translate our faith into action to live out that abundant life.
So here is my proposition for Lent.
Read the book of James.
No, seriously. Read (and re-read if necessary) the entire book of James this Lenten season. I believe that James is a radical book for a radical season. Believed by many to have been written by Jesus’ half brother, James is not a book to take lightly or ignored. Fair warning; if you read and study James, and I mean really pay attention to it and pray over its message, your life will never be the same. Faith is a verb, and since a verb is an action word, James puts the exclamation point after it.
“Now what use is it, my brothers, for a man to say he “has faith” if his actions do not correspond with it? Could that sort of faith save anyone’s soul? If a fellow-man or woman has no clothes to wear and nothing to eat, and one of you say, “Good luck to you I hope you’ll keep warm and find enough to eat”, and yet give them nothing to meet their physical needs, what on earth is the good of that? Yet that is exactly what a bare faith without a corresponding life is like—useless and dead. If we only “have faith” a man could easily challenge us by saying, “you say that you have faith and I have merely good actions. Well, all you can do is to show me a faith without corresponding actions, but I can show you by my actions that I have faith as well.”
To the man who thinks that faith by itself is enough I feel inclined to say, “So you believe that there is one God? That’s fine. So do all the devils in hell and shudder in terror!” For, my dear short-sighted man, can’t you see far enough to realize that faith without the right actions is dead and useless? Think of Abraham, our ancestor. Wasn’t it his action which really justified him in God’s sight when his faith led him to offer his son Isaac on the altar? Can’t you see that his faith and his actions were, so to speak, partners—that his faith was implemented by his deed? That is what the scripture means when it says: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God.” James 2:14-23 (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
Once you have read James, put what you have read into action. James is a call to action that makes most Christians nervous. James challenges you to not just talk about having faith and how you serve a loving God but to display it. Prove it. Put it into action.
And that is where it gets uncomfortable for most of us, to show you serve a loving God, you actually have to… well…. serve.
Show it not by giving up $5 latte’s or handfuls candy or that afternoon out with friends at the spa. Show it by rolling up your sleeves and building the Kingdom of God. Put some skin in the game and go be a volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Offer to do that needed house or yard work for a shut in or disabled person in your community. Mentor a child and show them that there are positive, caring and stable role models out there for them to look up too. Give your kids and your spouse your undivided attention, not just once, but time and time again. Find a missionary you can adopt and send them care package and supplies for their ministry. Better yet, deliver them in person and work with them for a time. Still stuck for something to do? Call your pastor, I bet they know of plenty of areas where you can help.
Make yourself available to the thousand and one ways that we can demonstrate that our life in and love of Christ transforms our lives and makes us different. Put our words into action. Change your perspective of Lent from one of doom, gloom and self-denial to one of joy, expectation and open celebration of our faith in Christ.
Radical perhaps, but I guarantee it will take your relationship with Christ to a whole new level.