I grew up in a traditional Lutheran family, which means, I grew up aware of and following the liturgical calendar, and its colors: white during Easter, green in the summer and fall, purple during Advent and Lent. The circle of the church year structured our lives, much like the seasons in the upper midwest where I lived and still live: there was the long, long winter, a short wet spring, wonderful summers and colorful autumns.
That being said, I did not observe Lent in the way my Catholic friend down the street did. I have no memory of ever "giving something up" for Lent. We didn't eat fish on Fridays, and we didn't get Ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I actually checked the old Service Book and Hymnal, the worship book of my youth, and there was indeed a day on our calendar called "Ash Wednesday", but, as far as I knew, we did not display ashen crosses on our foreheads.
We did have little cardboard boxes on our kitchen tables -- makeshift offering boxes for our special almsgiving of the season. And we did not sing "Alleluia" during Lent. Instead, this was our verse before the gospel: "Christ hath humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross."
So what is Lent for? The Lent of my childhood was penitential, and somber, and meant for remembering the suffering of Jesus. Focusing on Jesus' suffering would turn our hearts to repentance, turn our hearts toward life. More lately, we've focussed on things like discipleship, preparation for baptism.
One of the best Lenten series I ever heard about used the questions in Matthew 25: "Lord, when did we see you....." To me, this goes to the heart of what Lent is about. It is a season of pentitence, and sorrow for sin. It is a season to hear the wonderful words of the prophet Isaiah, "You shall be called repairers of the breach, restorer of the streets to live in." And it is a season to reflect on all of the ways we have not repaired the breaches in our lives, in our communities, in the world. It is a season to reflect on the times we have seen Jesus hungry, homeless and in prison, and have hardened our hearts.
And it is a season to open our hearts to the One who is the repairer of breaches, restorer of streets, healer of souls.
What is Lent for?
I think that Lent is a commitment to honesty: really to look at Jesus, really to look at the world, really to look at ourselves -- and live.