"A season of happiness and wonder that makes you serious" C.S. Lewis on Lent
I started observing Lent four years ago. And I mean observe in the loosest, most beginning terms. I'm still a novice who is learning and awkwardly attempting to practice this 40 day fast that began this past Wednesday and will end the Thursday before Good Friday.
What first persuaded me to consider practicing Lent was a slow realization. I became aware of the fact that I took the time to prepare my heart for Christmas every year with Advent. The intentionality I made room for in that four week period of celebrating the coming of the Light of the World made the holiday season so much more richer and meaningful. But when it came to Easter? It always seemed to sneak up on me, and the most I did to prepare was rush to the store and buy egg coloring kits and outfits for the kids the week of. I'm ashamed to say it was a holiday that didn't hold much value to me. I definitely looked forward to the Cadbury mini eggs, and singing a few nostalgic hymns, but Easter, the most important holiday of the Christian faith wasn't something I anticipated or prepared for.
In the midst of this stirring, I read Micha Boyett's book Found A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer. In her journey of seeking a deeper relationship with God, she experimented practicing some things that at the time, were new and uncomfortable for me. One of those things was showing up to a church on Ash Wednesday, receiving a smudge of ash and oil, and giving up chocolate for forty days. On her blog post "Lent and the Donkey" (http://www.michaboyett.com/blog/lent-and-the-donkey) she writes, "I'm taking away chocolate for 40 days because I'm learning that when I think I need something that to most of the world is a rare and novel treat, I am believing in the allusion of our culture, that somehow it can satisfy me. I'm believing that if I just have more and more of something that God made good, that I will feel secure, complete. It never works."
I was curious. All I knew of Lent was that people ate a lot of fish during it, and it seemed deeply religious. This rubbed against my non-denominational convictions and pallet. But I also knew that something needed to shift in the way that I approached Easter. So I ordered the book Bread and Wine Readings for Lent and Easter, a compilation of over 70 spiritual writers, and thought about what I would be willing to give up.
However, two weeks before Ash Wednesday, we lost our fourth child in a late miscarriage. By the time Lent began, I was in deep grief and angry. I wasn't going to give up anything. I already had. So I began my pilgrimage with an
edge and on guard.
I hungrily read Bread and Wine, and walked miles each day, silently ruminating over the words swirling in my mind. Looking back on that time of sadness and processing, everything seemed so still, quiet, and lonely. I was in pain and wanted it to disappear, or wanted some sort of meaning to hang onto to make this all worthwhile. Every year, I go back to the words of Thomas Merton that I highlighted that first year and sit with them, "Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning."
It was a tiny thread of light in a thick fog. I wasn't alone. I never had been. The Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief was by my side. He knew and understood, and chose to do something about the ugly problem of pain, death, and sin.
When I think back on that first Lent, so saturated with loss, the wound still aches. The body and soul has a long memory. And yet the longing it propelled me into also helped solidify an unshakeable hope. The story doesn't end with the cross and death. Just on the other side of Lent gapes an empty tomb. Victory and fulness of joy is my inheritance.
This year, I limp on in my keeping of Lent. Already it's imperfect and doesn't really look like a traditional observation. I didn't make it to a church that would mark my forehead with oil and ash. But in the early morning hours of Ash Wednesday, I slipped from bed, traced my fingers along the spines of books tucked in book cases, until I found my dogeared copy of Bread and Wine.
I flipped open my well worn book, and began with an essay from Barbara Cawthorne Crafton. She challenges the reader to take a hard look at our excesses, excuses, and pace of life, and then ends with these questions and a prayer, "When did the collision between our appetites and the needs of our souls happen? Was there a heart attack? Did we get laid off from work, one of the thousands certified as extraneous? Did a beloved child become a bored stranger, a marriage fall silent and cold? Or, by some exquisite working of God's grace, did we just find the courage to look the truth in the eye and, for once, not blink? How did we come to know that we were dying a slow and unacknowledged death? And that the only way back to life was to set all our packages down and begin again, carrying with us only what we really needed?
We travail, we are heavy laden. Refresh us, O homeless, jobless, possession-less Savior. You came naked, and naked you go. And so it is for us. So it is for all of us."
I nodded my head in agreement. The next 40 days, if I will receive it, is a gift. It's an opportunity to set down some packages I've been carrying and rest. To fast, in the traditional sense, is to give your stomach a break from digestion, to remind yourself that the flesh does not dictate the day. I'm going to be intentional about paying attention to rest and shed some burdens of fear, stress and comparison I've added on like layers. And when my flesh begins to growl, my thoughts are ugly, and the rush of fear and need to control tightens in my ribs, I'm going to remember the One who endured the cross for me.
Lent is here. Easter is coming. Don't let it sneak up on you. The Message paraphrases Hebrews 12:2-3 this way, "Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!"