Happy Lent!

Reference: Matthew 6:1-18
In the strongly Roman Catholic and Lutheran community where I grew up, the coming of Lent was anticipated in much the same way as a big winter storm. Special shopping was done, preparations were made, advice on coping was shared and above all, the coming event was dreaded. It was known as “peanut butter season,” because the normal luncheon meats disappeared, to be replaced by the sandwich spread. The substitution was seen as a hardship. Not everyone conformed to the program, but the less devout kept a low profile in regard to their non-compliance, while in public, fun events were curtailed, weddings were rare, dances ceased and a stagnate winter gloom settled over the town. Some countered the imminent arrival of that with the intense festivities of Fastnacht, a Mardi Gras adapted to Minnesota, to try to cram in as much fun as possible before the Lenten storm shut down enjoyment. In Minnesota, February meant that skimpy attire or outdoor parades were never an issue. It was a Mardi Gras of beer and feasting, of comedy and slapstick, until Ash Wednesday dawned, gray and cold, as people trudged to church and were careful not to wash off the smudge on their foreheads until evening.

In today’s world, all that is pretty much gone. There is little public indication that anything is different, the fasting requirements have become token efforts. Without a serious Lent, Fastnacht has lost its urgency and, where it still exists at all, simply become a quaint party with beer. For those who are still devout, however, Lent retains its character, at least in church, of a somber season of sadness and denial. Some still give up something important to them for the season, although the classic fast (no meat, plus in some traditions, no eggs or dairy, essentially a vegan diet) is uncommon even among the faithful except sporadically. Jesus’ admonitions in Matthew 6 (as referenced above) against ostentatious fasting are no longer relevant for a people who see no point in fasting at all.

There is no shortage of those who decry the loss of a meaningful and mournful Lent, and even those who would make the whole year into a Lent of dour, joyless, grinding condemnation of our sinful selves. But perhaps we must start somewhere else. The concept of Lent as a static occasion, a self-contained realization of my sin and need for behavior modification, and therefore my need for repentance and perhaps scourging misses the point. Like Advent, Lent is part of something bigger, only a beginning, a necessary one, but not the whole story. Like Advent, Lent is preparation. It is therefore a journey, ideally a pilgrimage, in time. Its historical development was as the season of final preparation for baptism among the catechumens, which was normally done in the early church at the Easter vigil, shortly after the Day of Resurrection annually arrived, at sundown on Easter Eve. This continued, culminating in the Pascal Eucharistic celebration at some point later in the night.

Generally, the instruction for the catechumens would have started long before. Lent was the final intense effort preceding baptism. It was thus a time of anticipatory joy. While it encompassed repentance and spiritual preparation, not simply instruction, it also wrapped the internal process of examination and repentance into the coming feast of Pascal baptism, the way in which cooking is related to eating. The thought of Lent as a self-standing and static exercise in doleful self-inflicted suffering to be endured for forty days with no particular outcome is really a distortion of the event, a pregnancy without birth. The examination of conscience and the necessary cleansing of repentance is in the context of a growing sense of the coming feast of endless joy in the message of, and the reality of, the Resurrection. Instead of a time of sadness and denial, it is one of maturing towards theosis in the environment of the shining grace of God, who is love, and has acted to reach each of us, in baptism, with the effective performance of that love in the Cross and Resurrection. Those already baptized appropriately observe the occasion to remember God’s work in bestowing baptism on them and by renewing their baptismal vows.

Unfortunately, the message is often lost in our current liturgical practice. First, the three “gesima” Sundays have disappeared in many parishes and modern prayerbooks. But they begin the journey in the liturgical year, just as the three great pre-Lenten Sundays in the Eastern Church do. They set the scene, as it were, in the context of grace. Without them, when the now abrupt announcement of Ash Wednesday arrives, with the prophetic call from Joel to commence the fast, it is out of sync with the journey on the grace filled road. And when the Holy Week dawns towards the fulfillment of the Lenten journey, the journey often breaks up for many of the Faithful just when it should begin bearing fruit, because Holy Week is a crucial part of the journey, and is one seamless unit, not a jumble of unrelated events. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are meaningless if seen as individual happenings. Unfortunately, the church may be full on Easter with a large number of people who have no real idea of why they are there. They want to eat without cooking, to travel without packing. In particular, the Easter vigil in many parishes is a sparsely attended service. But it is pivotal. Missing it means you have completely removed the connection between the preparation for Easter and the Pascal celebration itself.

Unlike my Minnesota upbringing, many come from an American culture which has no concept of a church year at all, let alone the interconnected nature of its road. As a result, it is not surprising that the nature of its journey is not understood or appreciated. In turn, this means that the Gospel itself is understood poorly and in a fragmented way. This Lent, it is our evangelical task to encourage people to walk an integrated path, merging the anticipatory preparation of examination and repentance with the celebratory joy of Resurrection, through the death and rebirth of the baptismal waters, with all the pieces in place. The highway made straight in Advent for the Messiah continues through to the road past Emmaus until it at last brings us, who are following him, home to the shining streets of the heavenly Jerusalem. There are no shortcuts or detours that work. But the road itself, even in its darkest and most difficult moments, is always the road of eternal joy, the road of new life in grace bestowed.