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Pace: Finding sanctuary during this season of Lent

Christians around the world have entered the holy season of Lent. Ash Wednesday, celebrated this year on March 6, marks the beginning of a new season in the Christian year – the holy season of Lent, which is a 40-day period when Christians around the world enter a period of self-reflection, prayer and preparation in anticipation of the celebrations of Easter. 

Forty days has its roots throughout the Bible. Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit where he fasted 40 days and 40 nights. Elijah fasted for 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain where he heard God’s still small voice. God’s people were led to Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights and were given commandments and made to be God’s covenant people. Rain fell on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights, and Noah built an ark for sanctuary. Forty is important, and that’s why the church developed a 40-day season of spiritual preparation.

Lent is a season of sanctuary. A sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety – like the ark was for Noah and his family and the animals. Sanctuary often connotes a sacred place, which is why we often use the word when talking about the places we gather for worship. I’d like to suggest that you use the word sanctuary to help you think about these next 40 days regardless of whether you are observing Lent. Now, I’m not suggesting you should or that you could use these 40 days to withdraw from the world completely. It’s impossible in the lives we’ve chosen or that have chosen us. We’ll still have work and school and family and friends and Facebook and Instagram and so many other demands on our time in these 40 days. But that’s all the more reason to remember that these 40 days have been set aside as a sanctuary. 

The scripture reading that accompanies the Ash Wednesday service is from Matthew’s gospel, chapter six. In it Jesus instructs that we are to retreat to a secret place for prayers and fasting. Jesus hints at this idea of sanctuary. The need for some retreat and refuge where we don’t practice our religion in front of people to draw their attention.  

My colleague, Juan Huertas, is a Methodist pastor in Shreveport, LA and has written an accessible devotion booklet for the season of Lent called The Sanctuary for Lent. It’s easy to find on Amazon if you enter the title and his name. The devotions start with Ash Wednesday and continue through Easter Sunday – one for each day. They contain brief readings with a short scripture passage, devotion, and a prayer. The prayers are breath prayers, which may be new to many of us. He notes these instructions about a breath prayer:

Simply breathe in as you pray the first part of the phrase…and 

and breathe out on the second phrase. Repeat multiple times. 

These prayers are intentionally short. The prayer for Ash Wednesday, for instance, is, “Loving God,…help me trust.” It’s intentionally short so we can remember it without having to look back at the devotion for the day, and these prayers are meant to be prayed throughout the day. If you pray it in the morning and repeat it multiple times as part of your devotion, it’s more likely to stick. Then it becomes part of your day – a habit-forming you in ways that you may not have imagined before you began this season of Lent or before reading the devotion for the day. 

And that’s the point. It becomes a habit, part of who you are, part of who we are as God’s people on earth. In a similar way that Jesus became God’s word in flesh and then loved the world no matter what, we are called to do the same. That’s a big task that requires sanctuary. It requires a set-aside season of preparation, not just for Easter, but to remind us of how to live all year long. 

The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.