At a recent vestry retreat as an icebreaker we went around the room and identified our favorite holiday. No one said “Ash Wednesday.” I wasn’t surprised. While many of our biggest holy days are about adding things to our usual worship, Lent is all about subtraction. We take away the fancy vestments, the parties and, most painfully for many of us, the “Alleluias.” Quite honestly, one of the first things that came to my mind when we decided that Ash Wednesday would be my first day as the Rector of Grace was that no matter how excited we were to embark on this journey together, we would have to wait a full forty days before expressing that joy by saying the “A word.” No wonder people find Lent depressing.
But the truth is that it’s not supposed to be. Lent is not some kind of endurance test to pass in order to be allowed to celebrate Easter. Lent is not about making church boring. And Lent is absolutely not about keeping people away from church – away from God. Lent is about becoming closer to God – not by making ourselves sick or angry or depressed, but by making us think about our relationship to God – and to one another.
That was the original idea behind the ancient customs of self-sacrifice instituted by the first Christians, who created Lent as a season of “penitence and fasting” for all Christians, but especially for those who had committed “notorious” sins and were separated from the church. It was a way to get people back to church. Of course, those people had to wear hair shirts for the entire 40 days to do it, so it required quite a bit of dedication.
The modern church doesn’t generally ask for that level of repentance and self-denial, but we do ask for some dedication – dedication not to suffering, but to learning and growing. Because the idea of adopting some special discipline for Lent is not about the action itself, but what it means to each of us. If it helps us feel closer to God and one another, then it’s accomplishing its purpose. If we simply lose five pounds and make a one-time donation to charity, we might be missing the point. God wants us to pray and fast and give things away not because we deserve to suffer (although we may), but because God wants us to experience his compassion and mercy when we do repent from our sins.
Physical deprivation has become, for many of us, what Lent is about. “What,” we ask each other, “are you giving up for Lent”? For the 25 percent of Americans who observe Lent, half say they do it by giving up a favorite food or beverage. The idea is that for many of us, giving something physical up causes us physical suffering – and we think that’s good because God we believe that God wants us to suffer. But that’s not necessarily the case. What our scripture tells us that if we feel closer to God when we suffer – if physical discomfort helps us understand how much Jesus suffered for us – if emotional catharsis opens us up to the Holy Spirit, then we will experience God’s compassion and grace. But not if our Lenten discipline is a leftover New Year’s resolution that we have decided to give another try.
The key, I think, is to start thinking of Lent as an opportunity instead of a punishment – to experience our faith in a different way, to grow as Christians and as human beings; to rend our hearts and not our garments.
A few years ago I decided to try “taking on” something instead of or in addition to giving something up. I don’t know if it is ultimately any more helpful in bringing me closer to God than giving up chocolate, but it definitely gives me something to think about, requires me to lean on God to do it, and provides me with a sense of love and hope that giving up chocolate never could.
This year, I encourage you to do something different for Lent; take something on instead of giving something up – or give up something different. Give up the internet instead of chocolate! You can participate in the diocesan carbon fast or join national church efforts for social justice. Repent, grow, and seek the presence of God in whatever way works best for you. But whatever you do, do it with joy and compassion – do it faith and love – do it with – dare I say it? – the spirit of Alleluia. AMEN
Bob Smietana, (February 15, 2017), “Eat, Pray, Lent: Here’s what Americans actually abstain from,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/eat-pray-lent-what-americans-actually-abstain-from.html.