About two weeks before Lent the questions always begin. “What are you doing for Lent?” ”Got any plans for Lent?” “What are you fasting?” And parish programs promising “The Best Lent Ever” start popping up.
Someone recently came up to me smiling broadly, “It’s almost Lent! Are you as excited as me?”
I paused. Finally I said, “Well, I mean, not particularly.”
“Why?!” she said. “Lent is great!”
“Well, yes. Lent is fruitful. But it is also walking with Jesus in the desert for 40 days. So, things might get rough.”
“No way! I am already living in that Easter Resurrection,” she practically cheered.
I just smiled, not unkindly, and said, “I think you are doing it wrong.”
THOUGHTS ON LENT
Lent is beautiful. It is fruitful, necessary, and good. It helps us orient our lives to the most important things. It confronts us with our humanity and brokenness. Through it Jesus offers us hope of greater healing.
But I would not say Lent is particularly fun. I always stand at the edge of Lent with a bit trepidation. Like a child who is placed on a table and told to jump to Daddy, I know God is going to catch me when I jump into his arms. That doesn’t stop the butterflies and the slight hesitation of “Do I dare?”
It’s like when CS Lewis says, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”
There are things built into our faith and I daresay into our very humanity that show us the balance of things; they challenge us to hold opposing things in tension—or the polarity of things that for one piece to work the opposite must also be fully engaged.
For example, you cannot have a feast unless you have a fast. It means less if every single day you sit down to Thanksgiving. Some days have to be bread and water for it to make any sense. The inverse is also true. If you never sit down to a table spread with all the delights, your days of fasting are just regular Tuesdays.
St. Paul says in Philippians that his goal was to count all his triumphs as bullshit (yes, he says it just that plainly) that he might win Christ. He says he wants to know Christ in the power of his resurrection.
…and the sharing of his sufferings, being conformed to his death.
You don’t get the power of the resurrection unless you have shared in the sufferings, joining with him in death.
You don’t get to Easter without going through Lent. The oasis makes sense only after the desert.
It’s theosis. It’s the increasingly fuller participation with the divine life. It is being fully absorbed and remade as God. And that process, while joyful and love-filled, is not easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
IT’S NOT ABOUT ME
There has been such a focus in recent years to decide what to do for Lent. Never has that question been posed more often than in 2022. I don’t think a few hundred years ago anyone walked up to some peasant gleaning a field and said, “So what are you doing for Lent?” The reply would probably be, “What do you mean? Everyone knows what we do for Lent.”
People fasted in solidarity with the Church. No one undertook Lent with the 40-days-to-a-beach-body mentality. Lent was less about my personal growth and/or struggles with Jesus and far more about Christ preparing his Bride (the whole Church!) for her wedding. My hunch is that the subtle influence of Protestantism crept in so that rather than seeing ourselves as a participating and valuable member of the whole, we are rugged individuals who are focused only on Jesus being our personal Lord and Savior.
And while what is attributed to St. Augustine is true, that Jesus loves each of us as if there were only one of us (What he actually said was, “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care.”) he did not come to redeem individuals, he came to establish a Church and was about the redemption of all creation—of which I am a part.
Does that mean that my small personal penances mean nothing? Of course not! St. Therese said that to pick up a pin for love could save a soul. But it does mean that solidarity and unity with the rest of the Body of Christ—joining together my sufferings with the whole offers a greater transformation that locking my heart away with a private penance detached from the rest.
So does it matter that you give up chocolate or decide to go without shaving or leave social media? Do you or I need to come up with a unique and special penance each year? Does creativity and innovation need to even come into the picture? Or maybe, just maybe, do we go through the scary process of opening ourselves up to God and say, “This is Lent. I have been carrying around some baggage that has prevented me from experiencing theosis. Please take what you will. And I will trust you.” As an outward sign of that, maybe we observe what the Church has historically done—fast. It might hurt a little. But “have you ever been to a dentist?”
WHEN GOD GIVES YOU YOUR LENT
Proverbs 16:9 says that the heart of a man makes plans, but it is God who determines his path. And that is my Lent. Jesus has issued a deeply compassionate and tender invitation to join him in the desert. “Come to the desert. I’ll find you there.”
I like clarity in my life. I like having expectations of which I am aware. I like consent. I like tender truth telling and heart connections. I like to see and to be seen.
The flip side is that God says, “Trust.”
God says “Show up. And then see what happens.”
God says to not try to figure out the meaning of my life, but to lean hard into him. He is both the question and the answer. The prayer and the fulfillment. The seed and the harvest. My empty attempts to sort him out block my ability to sort myself out.
So breathe. Don’t just stand in the truth, rest in it. Speak the truth, but then don’t defend it. Just be.
I was exploring this idea of being in the middle of two things when a friend and confidant reached into his habit and pulled out this chotki. It was like the Lord was saying, “I told you I would provide you your Lent. Here it is. Settle down with it.”
So if you see me mumbling under my breath or fiddling with a rope, you will know. I am confessing to God my brokenness—here in this exile. I am asking for mercy, for me, a sinner.
God is good; haven’t you ever been to a dentist?