03/16/2012 11:22 am ET Updated May 16, 2012

Lent: The Role of Forgiveness

"How many times should I forgive my brother or sister?" Peter asks Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. "As many as seven times?" Jesus' reply is often cited as the ultimate instruction for Christian forgiveness: "Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times." For Matthew, the instruction ends here, but in Luke's version, Jesus elaborates. "If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender," he explains, "and if there is repentance, you must forgive."

The season of Lent is a time of preparation for the church's observance of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Many Christians cite the above verses and emphasize the importance of forgiving, but Lent turns this instruction on its head. Lent is a penitential season. During these 40 days, the focus is on repentance and the need for forgiveness, not its practice.

In Orthodox traditions, the last day before Lent is Forgiveness Sunday. This day's evening service concludes with a ceremony in which members kneel before one another and ask for forgiveness. Western traditions celebrate the last day before Lent as Shrove Tuesday. Best known today for all-you-can-eat pancake suppers, the origins of Shrove Tuesday come from the ancient ritual of shriving, in which a person confesses sins to a priest, receives penance, and is absolved.

In both traditions, the beginning of Lent is marked by penitential observance. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Western traditions, creates a visible reminder of this with its rite of imposing ashes. A minister marks the sign of the cross in black soot on the penitent's forehead, saying, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." This is usually followed by a corporate confession of sins.

The ashes are typically made by burning the palm leaves blessed on the previous year's Palm Sunday. The use of ashes recalls the ancient penitential tradition of covering one's head with ashes and wearing sackcloth.

The entire season is marked by quiet restraint. Bold colors are removed from altars. Liturgical alleluias are left unsaid. The ritual of fasting is meant to recognize Jesus' 40-day journey through the wilderness and signal serious reflection and repentance of sins. Today's "fasts" from chocolate or coffee, or even the recent trend of taking on a healthy habit, hardly touch the original Lenten tradition of fasting as a difficult penance.

It is easy to talk about Lent without mentioning forgiveness at all. Lent is about penitence, but of course forgiveness is just below the surface. Lent is a time of plumbing the depths of the self, humbly acknowledging mistakes, and asking for forgiveness.

In many ways, the season of Lent resembles the Jewish high holy days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). During these Days of Awe, Jews reflect on those they might have harmed during the previous year. They make amends and ask forgiveness. Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast that includes confessions of guilt and petitions for forgiveness. Here again, the focus is not on dispensing forgiveness; rather, the point is to apologize, atone, and ask for mercy.

Lent may be a season of forgiveness, but not the kind of warm and fuzzy forgiveness believers often associate with Jesus' teachings. Instead, forgiveness is a hard-won and distant hope. The journey there is a difficult one of apology, penitence, and self-examination. Forgiveness is not a foregone conclusion, not during the 40-day wilderness fast. Christians may take the resurrection for granted, but the Lenten season is meant to be a willing suspension of all those happier endings.

It is true that Christians are called to forgive in the interest of community repair, but during Lent the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke rise to the surface: "If there is repentance, you must forgive." Christian believers are called to live into that repentance as they prepare for Passion and the celebration of the resurrection. Forgiveness must be sought as much as it is given.