In the Western Christian tradition, we are about to enter the season of Lent. This year, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, takes place on March 1. Traditionally, Lent is the period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter, when Christians fast, contemplate their sins, repent and ask for forgiveness. Lent (a word that derives from the Middle English word, lente, “springtime”) commemorates Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, as reported in Matthew 4:1-11.
It may be safe to say that, for some moderns, a whole season devoted to fasting (depriving oneself) and contemplating how bad you are could be quite a turn-off and not worth the trouble. Growing up, I remember friends trying to figure out in advance what they were going to give up (chocolate? dessert?) and whether they could really pull it off. (I think I tried giving something up a few times and eventually gave up – as it were.) Meat was avoided by devout Christians, and much fish was consumed!
On Ash Wednesday, Christians who attend church have ashes marked on their foreheads, usually by a priest or minister, with these words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (The ashes are created by burning last year’s palms from Palm Sunday.) Well, that’s a happy thought – that you will someday be dead and reduced to dust! Among the words spoken by the officiant on Ash Wednesday are these:
“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
It is understandable that in our modern, more secular age, some of these sentiments may be practically meaningless. As beautiful as many of the Lenten hymns are, they are usually written in a minor key and can resonate rather morbidly for people who have suffered great losses in their lives.
In recent years, in the Episcopal Church and others, the emphasis in Lent has turned away from commiseration of our failings and depriving oneself of something and more toward adding a practice or discipline that deepens our spirituality. Some churches sponsor an adult education series that focuses on a spiritual or religious topic (my church this year will be offering a series called “Joyful Resistance,” reflecting our current political situation). Churches, monasteries and convents often offer a day-long program of reflection, including a simple meal, and various organizations publish study materials that parishioners can use on their own or in small groups. (Two groups with which I am familiar are Bread for the World and The Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Mass.) One of the private practices that I often add during the season of Lent is chanting the Great Litany several times a week (pages 148-54 in the Book of Common Prayer and S-67 in the Hymnal 1982).
In this time of our national discourse, it seems that many of us are much more reflective than we may have been in the past! It may also be safe to say that many Americans feel that certain of our fellow citizens need to be more penitent, that those who do not agree with us need to ask forgiveness, and that some – the rich and/or powerful, perhaps – should practice more self-denial.
As we head into this season of Lent, whether we are religious or not, I would ask the following of all of us:
- Keep in mind those millions among us who are already deprived, especially the poor, many of whom do not know where their next meal is coming from. One can argue that it would be cruel to ask them to give up something for Lent when they already have so little.
- Realize that all of us have faults, weaknesses and blind spots; we all need some level of self-examination. However, it is often necessary to balance this self-reflection with a sense of peace and contentment: if you are one who frequently finds fault with yourself, use Lent to focus on your positive qualities and how those can make an advantageous difference in the world.
- Consider participating in a new practice or discipline that could enrich you spiritually, whether alone or in community.
- Pray for or think about those who do not agree with you, even those whom you can’t stand. This probably should not be a petition that the person start agreeing with you but rather a humble, even vague, prayer or thought leaving the result up to God (however you define God or the Divine).
- It may not be such a bad thing to remember that in the end we all die – we all turn to dust. (Obviously I have more nuanced beliefs about this, outlined in my book, Paranormal, but for now let us concede that we will all eventually leave this particular life on earth.) Lent can thus be a good time to contemplate, at least briefly, what we want our legacy to be. How do we want to be remembered when we ultimately return to dust?
In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, then, let us enter into a “holy Lent” that deepens us spiritually, creates joy, strengthens community, fosters tolerance, and nurtures love.