It’s Ash Wednesday, and Lent snuck up on me this year. I feel a little disgruntled about the prospect of trying to figure out something to give up. My entire life right now is figuring out how to give things up. How to not hug friends. How to not go to church. Aren’t we supposed to rid ourselves of bad habits during Lent? Shouldn’t I be giving up smoking and drinking instead of loving neighbors?
I had to remind my disgruntled self of something important: the point of Lent is not to give something up. I’m not assigned another project to execute, another point of vigilance. The point of Lent is to reorient myself to Jesus. To reorient my body, my mind, my soul to Jesus. If I give up, say, eating meat, or my before-bed bowl of ice cream, that reorients my body to Jesus. If I give up complaining about the person who parks in our parking spot every day, I reorient my mind to love my neighbor. It feels hard to remember that my body, mind, and soul are connected to each other right now (given that some days I’m still just counting down the hours until I can crawl into bed), but the idea is that by choosing some small thing to attend to, we reorient our lives toward the cross.
The point is to look to Jesus, not to fixate on my ever-growing anti-checklist of things to not do. It’s also not a chance to twist our arms into being better, more spiritual people. Lent is, in fact, not about us. Not about what we do, or how well we do it. If you find yourself with a spoonful of chocolate chip mint, you’re not a failure. You’re not less spiritual and Jesus doesn’t love you less. The point is not the ice cream, or the spiritual feelings about the ice cream. The point is Jesus.
The other thing I need to remember is the feast day.
Even in non-pandemic times, we evangelicals kind of like giving things up. We tend to be fans of not drinking, not smoking, not swearing. We tend to think these things make us better Christians. For better and worse, we are pretty good at self-denial and feeling super-spiritual about that self-denial. But here’s the part of Lent we often do not note, let alone celebrate: Sunday is a feast day. So, if you give up, say, buying lattes from your local cafe, on Sunday — the feast day — you should go get one and savor that foamy milk. Giving up meat? On Sundays you get a freshly grilled steak for dinner. And bacon for breakfast. Part of preparing for the feast of Easter is practicing feasting. Sunday is a foretaste of what is to come — both on Easter, and in heaven.
So, Lent has begun. What can I do to orient myself toward Jesus? How can I practice feasting in the midst of so much lament? Is there still an invitation for me to give something up in the midst of so much of our normal life having disappeared? Lent isn’t about glorifying suffering, so we’re not looking for more ways to suffer. We don’t need to analyze the checklist of options and pick one that feels like it might be doable given the prevailing circumstances. But should I just pat myself on the back and eat another piece of chocolate?
Maybe Jesus has an invitation for me to draw close through changing a daily pattern for these six weeks. I once knew a person who always wore a folded bandana tied around his head in a liturgically appropriate color. He was quirky, to say the least, but maybe onto something. I’m presuming that every morning during Lent he got dressed and thought something like “still Lent, purple bandana today.” It’s what Silicon Valley types call a disruptor (I think). It breaks you out of the routine, and forces you to pay attention while it says, “Hey! Jesus has drawn close to you on the cross. Turn to Jesus.” Sometimes not eating ice cream does this handily. But this past year we have given up many of the foundational structures of our lives and many of our daily joys. Maybe something mundane like a purple ponytail holder or coffee mug or toothbrush offers an unassuming prompt to remember that we are journeying to the cross. But, dear reader, hear this: regardless of what you do or don’t do, regardless of what’s happening around you, Jesus has drawn near to you.
I learned to practice Lent at an Episcopal church with a Holy Saturday service that wrapped up late, like 10 pm. The liturgy brought us out of the sorrow of Lent and Holy Week into the joy of Easter. We ushered in Easter with the shouting of Alleluias and ringing of bells (as in, old ladies who had been going to the church forever had actual bells they brought from home kept for this purpose, and many less prepared people shook car keys vigorously). It was joy-filled, and truly loud. Following the service one church member hosted a huge party. If there was something you might have given up for Lent, you found it at this party. So, there were bell-toting ladies eating cheesecake and drinking whiskey at midnight after church. I hope this is what we can find this Lenten season: a tangible sense of the nearness of God’s goodness in sorrow and celebration. God has drawn near to us on the cross. Come, let us draw near to Jesus.
Photo by Adrian Flores from StockSnap.