So Lent is coming up, starting the day before Valentine’s Day, and I cannot wait. For Lent, that is. I know this makes me weird, but what else is new?
A lot of people seem bemused by Lent. Unlike many religious celebrations, it never caught on outside of the Church, I guess because it’s hard to think of Lenten greeting cards. Also, on most holidays, you get stuff; who wants a holiday where you give something up? What’s so wrong with chocolate, anyway? And why give something up for forty days, then get right back on the wagon? Is it all just some kind of spiritualized crash diet? Is it a way of getting Heaven Points, more Catholic masochism, a grand show of self-control?
It’s all too easy to see it that way in our achievement-driven society, like something that would be on the front page of some magazine: 40 Days to Closeness with God! (The secret saintly technique they never taught you in Catechism class!) I remember the first Lent I celebrated as a child, four and a half feet of perfectionism and neurotic tendencies, constantly about to hyperventilate. I gave up sweets, and then I forgot and ate a brownie they gave me at Girl Scouts, and when I realized what had happened I burst into tears. In my mind, I had Failed at the forty-day deprivation test. In my mind, it was all about me.
Now, as an adult, what I really love about Lent is the reminder that I was (once again) dead wrong as a child. It’s not all about me. In fact, practically nothing is about me. There is a huge, glorious, blessed, terrifying, cruel, wonderful, raw world out there outside me, and there is an untamed, indescribable, unfathomable God calling my name.
Lent is about learning again to see that world, to hear that call. The giving stuff up part is just getting distractions out of the way.
The forty days of Lent represent the forty days Jesus spent in a barren desert just prior to his public ministry, fasting and praying and battling temptation from within and without. His vision quest, if you will. He knew the rest of his life would be crowded and messy, full of people scrambling to touch him and shouting for his attention. He knew that, once he started healing people, tender moments with his Abba would be snatched at sunrise and interrupted by well-meaning disciples saying, “We’ve been looking for you!” Lent is when we, like Jesus, make our lives empty like desert, carve out some time and space to struggle with our longings, to ask the big questions, to cultivate an inner silence we can take with us into the tumult.
That’s the first great gift Lent gives me: the call to fasting. Sweeping all the clutter out of the tiny house of my soul so I can see out the window again, so I can find the three things I’ll grab when it catches fire.
Lent is great for people like me, people whose vocabulary does not include “no.” Lent gives me permission to say the big fat sacred No to all the things that clutter up my time and suck away my precious seconds. Lent says, “It’s okay to sit here with your eyes closed and your ears open. It’s okay to just breathe. Let all that other stuff go. You may think this is not important, but actually it’s the most important thing: learning just to Be.”
That’s the second great gift Lent gives me: the call to prayer. The beautiful interplay of sacred words and sacred silence.
Lent is great for people like me, people who can be just a tad self-absorbed. Sometimes I pray, “Oh Jesus, I want to know you deeply, I want to be united to you in your suffering,” and Jesus looks at me with great tenderness and a bit of wry amusement and goes, “Well, how about we start you off slow, like with a mild illness?” and about a day into my tiny little cold I’m whining, “Make it stop!” Meanwhile, back in the rest of the world, people try to feed their families with wages I might spend in a vending machine. Meanwhile, the money I spend on luxuries could help save a child’s life from preventable disease. While I sometimes feel downcast and wonder about the meaning of my life, a dollar, a meal, a kind word from me could bring so much meaning to another person’s day.
That’s the third great gift Lent gives me: the call to giving. The chance to remember how much I’ve been given and openheartedly pass it on.
Of course, after forty days I will, like Jesus, be hungry. Longing for what I’ve given up will consume my attention. But I’ll take that longing and I’ll try to turn it toward the Source of all things, where it belongs. In our culture of endless plenty, I’ll try to learn again how to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
And then, when the sun rises on Easter, I’ll be good and ready to party.