Everyone loves the celebration of Easter Sunday, but not so much the long season of preparation that is Lent. But if we try to skip straight to the good part, we miss the spiritual depth that God is looking to grow in us, says Aaron Damiani

We are not ready for Easter. Not emotionally, not spiritually. But we always seem to be ready for the trappings of Easter.

For most Christians, Easter Sunday is a polite and happy occasion. Children hunt for eggs and consume chocolate bunnies. Families, including mine, gather and eat dinner together, then move on with our lives.

Meanwhile, church leaders see Easter Sunday as an opportunity unlike any other to reach out to the community. Easter is still one of the highest-attended services of the year. And, as a local church pastor, I feel the pressure every year to preach a sermon that connects with spiritually curious visitors. The reality of church growth competes with Jesus’ resurrection for my headspace and personal energy.

We cannot prepare for Easter over a weekend. We need a longer pilgrimage to get ready

Despite all the hoopla and mixed motives, I believe pastors and parishioners alike sincerely want to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. But my experience, before I practiced Lent, was that this sincerity seemed to be somewhat forced. Easter Sunday is a victory feast but, in many churches, it feels like a company picnic where everyone is expected to show up and be happy.

An invitation to feast

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, history itself took a surprising, climactic turn. Even the people who had been preparing themselves could hardly believe it. To paraphrase Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful companion in The Lord of the Rings, this meant that everything sad was coming untrue. Death was turned on itself. Satan and his demons had run into the mouse trap of the cross, forfeiting their threats. And our hero was making good on all his promises.

It is the birthright of every church to celebrate, feast, and exult in Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. We are invited to participate in the stirring worship depicted in Revelation 4–5, giving honor and thanks with a loud voice to the Lion of Judah.

Every Sunday - and especially on Easter Sunday - we can overflow with hope every time we look upon him, crucified and resurrected. He is not only seated on the throne, but is also healing our marriages, breaking our addictions, and uniting races and cultures into one family.

Secret snacking

So why, then, do we still feel awkward and halfhearted on Easter Sunday? In many cases, it’s because our imaginations have been malnourished along the way. We have been secretly snacking on lesser stories—such as politics, pornography, or our children’s athletic success. In theory, the gospel is compelling but, in reality, we would rather pay attention to whatever Netflix is offering. We are so full on the junk food of our culture that we cannot metabolise the feast on our Easter plates.

Augustine had a phrase for this: incurvatus in se, meaning “curved in on oneself.” We were made to look upward and outward with our imaginations to behold the beauty of God in Christ. But like a tourist visiting the Grand Canyon, who would rather look down at his Instagram likes than out at the breathtaking vista in front of him, we have curved in on ourselves.

We are called to worship, but we have chosen to fantasise. We have exchanged God’s exhilarating and expansive story for lesser stories shaped by our fears, pain and unhealthy desires.

The truth is that well before Easter, Jesus can wash, prepare, and fill our imaginations for worship. And this is where the practice of Lent comes in.

Jumping into the story

When I was growing up, Fridays were family night. After dinner, we would huddle round the TV and watch classic reruns. I was taken with Zorro, who would inevitably find himself in a battle of wits and swords with evil men, leaving a “Z” mark on their shirt with three swift movements of his sword. I wanted to become the type of person who could confront evil men and wield a sword like Zorro, so I asked my Dad to enroll me in fencing lessons; Zorro’s story had captured my imagination to the extent that I wanted to live in it.

A compelling story has the effect of us wanting to participate, which is why my daughters want to be mermaids and my sons want to attend Hogwarts. And this, I believe, is why many Christians make, or aspire to make, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Walking the footsteps of Jesus allows them to tangibly inhabit his life and ministry. You can breathe the air of Bethlehem, be baptised in the Jordan River, and get your feet dusty on the road to Golgotha.

We are so full on the junk food of our culture that we cannot metabolise the feast on our Easter plates

Can you imagine making a Holy Land pilgrimage every year in anticipation of Easter? This is the journey of Lent, an ancient pilgrimage that the Lord uses to recapture our imagination and renew our participation in the greatest story ever told.

I doubt any Holy Land tour would take you to the wilderness for 40 days. But perhaps they should. The desert is where God called his people to make them holy. We assume the wilderness is a place of exile and isolation, and it certainly can be that. But in the story of redemption, the wilderness has always been a sacred spot for God and his beloved. In the wilderness, we detox from our false attachments and renew our bond with our loving Father.

Entering the wilderness

When I am on a flight that is preparing for takeoff, I chafe at the command to switch my electronic devices to Airplane Mode. I do not like it because it cuts me off from the stimulants and freedoms that I feel I need. It forces me to have an actual conversation with the person sitting next to me.

When God calls his people into the wilderness, he puts their whole existence on Airplane Mode. I resist this, and so might you. It means feeling out of control and out of the loop. Our go-to stimulants and stories are no longer on tap. We can no longer anesthetise our emotions or avoid a conversation with our Father.

It might feel like a restrictive punishment, but it’s actually a heavenly gift. Lent is indeed a wilderness, and there are several reasons why we can and should enter it.

We do not go into the wilderness to find God. We enter the wilderness because God has found us. He has delivered us, blessed us, and called us his own. The desolation and quiet gives us space to ponder the great salvation we have already received. In the wilderness, even our struggles and failures teach us the truth of the gospel.

Consider the people of Israel. They journeyed into the wilderness after watching their oppressors drown in the Red Sea by the hand of God. Exodus details the song of praise that carried them out of Egypt: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation…Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea!” (Exodus 15:2, 4).

The wilderness was not where Israel earned their salvation. It is where they internalised what it meant to be saved. In a desolate place, bread fell from heaven and water gushed from a rock. The multitudes were fed by faith and with thanksgiving. The Living Word was in their midst, working beautiful, wild miracles, changing slaves into sons. With each nourishing meal the tyranny and pretense of Egypt lost its grip. It took Israel 40 years to realise they were the Lord’s treasured possession, not Pharaoh’s unworthy slaves.

Consider Jesus. He entered the wilderness with his Father’s baptismal endorsement ringing in his ears: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Unlike Israel, and us, he had no false attachments of which to repent. His 40-day fast made space for him to bask in his Father’s love and to draw upon the Spirit’s power. When the Devil tempted him with fantasies of dazzling self-love and godless power, Jesus was ready. He shut down the demonic chatter with the Word of God, which lived inside him.

A new reality

In the Lenten wilderness, our fantasies of glory, fear or pleasure can give way to the reality of God’s glory, love and holiness. God acts in history, and we enter the wilderness to give our imaginations a chance to catch up.

But why is Lent 40 days? Practically speaking, it takes at least that long to prepare our hearts for Easter. As Dallas Willard put it: “One drop of water every five minutes won’t get you a shower.” 

We need to be immersed in the reality of the kingdom of God before we start seeing its impact on our lives. The same is true for Easter Sunday and all the Sundays that follow. We need more than a Good Friday service two days before to prepare our mind and heart to celebrate Jesus’ victory.

We cannot prepare for Easter over a weekend. We need a longer pilgrimage to get ready.

Most importantly, the 40 days draw us into the gospel drama that Jesus lived. He went into the wilderness before us, and he goes there again with us. He knows that the struggle is real, that our frame is weak, and that we are dust. Because we are united to him, his 40 days become ours.

When God calls his people into the wilderness, he puts their whole existence on Airplane Mode

Lent is not our ultimate destination. The wilderness fast is temporary, thanks be to God! The bright light of the resurrection is ahead. The word Lent derives from the old Saxon word for spring.

In the Lenten Spring, winter is giving way to summer. Each day’s light is longer than the last. Lent, then, is a profound picture of the Christian journey. It stands between our deliverance and our home. It is a time of faith and longing, hope and expectation.

No, we are not ready for Easter. Not yet. But with the world behind us and the cross before us, we go repenting and rejoicing one faltering step at a time. And everything sad is coming untrue.

The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent (Moody Publishers) is available now