The Relief of Lent

Tis the season for grief, weakness, and the God who loves the worst of us.

Sarah Condon / 3.1.22

As Ash Wednesday is upon us, it feels like Lent is the one church season that really gets it right. And by that, I mean, the seasons of the church liturgical calendar can often feel woefully out of touch with what is actually happening in the world.

Amidst my to-do lists and holiday existential angst, the church often spends Advent telling me I need to be more present. By the time Christmas gets here I feel as though I’ve been hit in the head with a wreath. We may be singing “Silent Night” but I am often so exhausted that I’m hoping for a silent nap. Epiphany is the season when I worry about taking down holiday decorations and hoping to glimpse this elusive light everyone keeps mentioning. And aside from having the churchiest name ever, Ordinary Time, feels like your friend that needs medication for her anxiety but just keeps saying she’s “high strung.” Get some meds girl, ain’t nothing ordinary about right now.

Lent, however, is this big beautiful purple ocean of sadness. The Church takes us into her arms and says, “Oh you grieve? I grieve too.” It is in this season specifically that our nagging questions rise to the top. Will our regrets define the landscape of our lives? Can we possibly outrun our shame? Are we the only lonely ones in the room? Lent is the moment when we sit in the worn down pews where generations of rear ends have rested and we collectively ask what will become of us.

Only we find this whole practice incredibly difficult to do.

All too often, Lent becomes another self-improvement project and a second chance to try out your New Year’s resolutions. In our neatly laid out 40 day plan, we aim to make the world a better place. We, who have washed the same load of laundry three times because we keep forgetting to put it in the dryer. We, who have eaten cereal for dinner because we dread the grocery store. We, who yell too much at the people we love. We will make the world a better place just like Jesus withstood the temptations of the devil. Sure thing.

Or worse still, we hope to make our bodies a better place. Nothing makes me sadder than a Lenten discipline that involves a diet. God does not want your carbohydrates or your sugar. God wants you.

I often wonder if all of the hand wringing about what to “give up” or “take on” is just a way to distract ourselves from what is ultimately happening at Lent. This season is the absence of presence, the dimming of the light. So of course we try to fill the space with our own defensive dialog.

Lent is a season for grief and weakness. And if you are not feeling one of those things then you might be feeling both. Lent is not telling us to fix what is wrong with us, it is telling us that we cannot. It is a season when it is okay to admit that kneeling in a cavernous church is the most honest posture you can take. And that even the slightest bit of control we think we have is fleeting.

The collect assigned for this first Sunday of Lent really says it all:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We are promised that God knows our weaknesses personally. Our fears about the world around us, our inability to be the kind of parent we long to be, our jealousies and our fury, the sadness of loss that refuses to let us go. How in the world could someone show up and love the worst of us? And why in the world would Jesus choose that lot for Himself?

And so, what does this mean for that other season in our beautifully antiquated church calendar? What does this mean for Easter? Do you have to practice a meaningful Lent in order for Easter to feel as glorious as we are promised it is? Given the last few years that humanity has suffered, the war our world is facing, and whatever weaknesses your soul personally suffers I would ask you this:

Do we even have a choice?

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