The Holy Nugget of Lent

LentEach month, Dean Emilie M. Townes writes a letter to alumni and friends in the Divinity School’s e-newsletter, the Spire. We are releasing this month’s reflection early to mark Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 day season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Here Dean Townes reflects on the meaning of Lent and its gift of preparation.


When I was a kid, I always thought of Lent as the 40 days that I gave up something I really, really liked—or at least tried to. It was a time of denial. A time of losing something I valued. A time of frustration. A time of a growing hunger for that thing I was not supposed to have—be it food or an activity or whatever I could come up with. Some of my friends chose easy things. For those who didn’t like chocolate, they gave up chocolate or for those who didn’t like peas, well, that’s what they gave up. Meanwhile, I was walking around miserable while some of my friends bragged about their Lenten discipline’s ease. I always thought that they were cheating and getting away with it. I just couldn’t see the Holy in giving up what you never touched or did for 40 days, because you didn’t do them the other 325 days.

Well, somewhere along the journey, I realized that what I attempted to do each Lent was missing the holy nugget of Lent—preparation. Yes, prayer and doing penance and repentance, almsgiving, self-denial and more are a part of it, but I was so focused on the acts of Lent that I had lost the reason for Lent. Preparation is sometimes an undervalued thing in our religious journeys and in life in general. Too often, we leap into what we think must be done or should be responded to without taking time to ask basic questions like do I even know what I’m doing? Do I have all of the facts? Have I asked if I’m needed? Have I asked how I can be helpful? The list goes on. What preparation does—as folks still learn from the Rev. James Lawson about nonviolent social protest and disobedience and how to live it far beyond February Black History month—is preparation gives you the foundation for your acts through readying head, heart, body and spirit for the journey or task ahead.

So, this Lent I will begin again to prepare for the joy and celebration of Easter morning and the life that this calls me to for the rest of the year. Sometimes it is a reaffirmation, sometimes it is a new insight, most times it is humbling and it’s almost always much more possible when done in community. But the difference now is that rather than approaching it as what can I give up during these 40 days, it is what can I embrace that will help me be a more faithful witness to the Gospel. Won’t you join me?

Emilie M. Townes
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair
Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society