Oh yes, we need a little Lent …
With everything going on in complex times, when seismic shifts are occurring not only on our planet, but also in our state, and as always, in the recesses of our hearts, where the pull of being human can at one and the same time give us the joy of a spring day and in a moment the clouds of fear and anxiety, Lent comes at an ideal time.
Long assumed to be a time of miserable penitence, feats of sacrificial exuberance, and a constant preoccupation with sin and darkness, Lent seems to have earned its reputation as something to be endured and rushed through to the sweet joy of Easter and chocolate. It was a waiting room to the real mansion of Easter, and like most waiting rooms, littered with debris of regrets and filled with the mess of current anxieties and cluttered with the complexities of broken human hearts. The harder it was, the happier we were, because if we had a tough Lent and survived, we then could receive the reward of Easter and bragging rights that we survived and triumphed.
Might I suggest that this year, perhaps more than ever, we need to appreciate Lent as a season in the church year unto itself? Though like all realities in Christian life it gets its meaning and focus from Easter and the central reality of salvation through the cross and Resurrection, perhaps our experiences at this time in history – complex, divisive, fearful, tumultuous, heart-breaking – demand that we take the rigors of Lent not just as spiritual calisthenics, but as a way of interpreting the times.
Experiencing Lent as a season unto itself might then restore its original purpose as a time not just of penitence, but of conversion, a time not just of misery but of hope, because through Lent, we learn to appreciate suffering and sacrifice as integral to the new life of Easter.
The story of the Transfiguration, read on the second Sunday of Lent, is a case in point. The text reveals not only Jesus appearing with Moses and Elijah in glorious light, but the voice of God coming from a cloud that casts a shadow on the disciples. In a moment of divine spontaneity, Peter wants to build permanent tents to capture the moment. The glorious Transfiguration is soon to be replaced by the agonizing crucifixion.
Light and darkness, permanency and instability, exaltation and suffering, sunshine and clouds. It’s all a mix and, for the believer, you can’t have one without the other. There is no eternal light until eternity. There is no permanency until eternal rest. There are moments of exaltation, but we are still in the valley of tears. There will always be clouds this side of the sod.
The lesson that Lent teaches us is that there is no Easter without Good Friday, and that the present sufferings, powerful and filling our hearts to the brim, can either bring us to despair and anger or bring us to conversion to deeper faith in the person of Jesus and the saving power of the Cross.
Perhaps the greatest lesson we could learn from Lent this year is that the time of our darkest hours is specifically the time we need to cherish not as a breaking point, but as a growing point. Lent then is focused not so much on our experiences but on a growing appreciation of God’s fidelity and the power God has to work things out, as incomprehensible as that may seem.
Increased prayer then is the antidote to the poison of the despair we might be feeling about any number of situations in our personal and communal lives. Through prayer we understand the mixed reality of human living and the pure reality of divine loving, sustaining us in ways which might not be apparent at first, but in the long line of eternity helps us to keep things in perspective.
It is no mistake that Lent means springtime – through the storms of time, hope springs eternal, through the storms of disagreement, love springs eternal, through the storms of Lent, faith springs eternal.