The Gospel of Mark begins with a quote from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’
What does it mean to prepare for something? I think about those times when we have guests over for dinner and the fanatical, all-day rigmarole of cleaning and cooking that precedes it. All of a sudden you're caring about cleaning things that you rarely give a second thought. Or frantically shoving things into drawers and closets. Vacuuming, dusting, wiping down surfaces, organizing piles of built up clutter, hanging up clothes, cleaning sinks and toilets and fridges and entrance ways - preparation can be an intense business.
In scripture, the role of the prophet is a preparatory role; calling the people to get ready. This usually means a nation-wide clean up, turning over all the long ignored areas of clutter that have built up over time. Social injustice, greed, exploitation of the land, oppression of the weak and marginalized, idolatry, corruption - these aren't things you can hide in a closet. So the prophet calls the people to turn from these things, to root them out and rid the nation of them in a season of repentance and renewal. As I said, preparation is intense business.
The season of Lent functions in this way. It is the prophetic messenger, having gone out before the arrival of the King, calling the Church to get ready. It is a season of repentance and renewal. Lent is the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the way for Easter.
Two brief observations from this:
1) In the Christian tradition, the wilderness is a place of trial; of spiritual warfare. Anyone who knows me well knows that spiritual warfare is not something I spend a lot of time on. However, this Lenten season I am choosing to focus on the theme of struggle. I will be reflecting on this through the Gospel of Mark (known for Jesus' frequent encounters with spiritual enemies) and various readings throughout the tradition on the Incarnation and spiritual struggle.
2) The prophetic is often accomplished through what might be called 'pedagogical performance', or performance art (think Ezekiel shaving his beard with a sword, or lying on his side for 2 years, or eating food baked over manure). Thus, the fasting practices of Lent could be considered performances as such. We become through our enactment; and we point others to the coming Kingdom through our actions as well.
What does it mean to prepare?
It means getting ready, making things right, tidying, renewal. It's a struggle, but it brings about something great.
"The English name “Lent” derives from the Old English lencten, “lengthen,” that is, spring when the daylight begins to lengthen. (German Lenz, spring.) Lent is therefore to be understood as the Church’s springtime of renewal. This renewal is not just of the people of God, Church, but the renewal of the whole world of which the human race is a part." - Philip H. Pfatteicher