Longing for Lent
I’m not doing anything specific for Lent in my congregation. There is no ecumenical Lenten study, and I have not arranged for Lenten candles and prayers. I’ve not organized our various preachers and worship leaders to use a particular Lenten theme. We’ll celebrate Easter, of course, but Lent will only receive incidental attention.
Why is this? Am I simply disorganized, and too busy? Am I straying from the faith?
The brutal short answer is that Lent doesn’t count. There was no imperative beyond one Elder’s musing, “Should we do something for Lent?” She wasn’t enthusiastic. Perhaps, like me, she felt a vague duty because that’s what many congregations are doing. But there was no energy to actually do anything. No one in the congregation seems interested, and we have other things we are trying to do.
Lent is not part of my childhood tradition. I’m sure they did things for Lent, but I remember none of them. (I do remember Pancake Day, but that was about food, and I did not really connect it with church.) I remember the hymns. I remember Easter weekend. I remember Christmas, and even Advent, but not Lent. I suspect whatever happened in Lent never really engaged me in any way.
In my town, March was the time of holidays. Harvest was in. The bushfire danger was receding. You could leave sheep in relative safety as temperatures dropped. Water was still needed, of course, but there was a day or two’s grace for a farmer to take time off. His neighbour would also now have to keep an eye on things while he was away. Winter rains had not started. It was the perfect time for holidays, or getting married, not for a season of restraint.
February - March in Adelaide is festival time; a slightly more cultured extension of the Christmas holidays. The Festival of Arts begins soon, and the Fringe has started. Womadelaide is soon upon us. The Adelaide 500 is coming up, and we’ve just had Tour Down Under. Meanwhile, school is back, and the universities are getting up to speed for the new year. There are new student tours passing under my window several times a day. Who is going to have Lent, and go ‘all serious’ in the middle of this?
Christmas time gets enormous support in Adelaide from the commercial sector. They are not likely to promote a season of restraint and fasting. (At least Easter sells chocolate! And it has a four day holiday.) Christmas time also coincides with the end of the year. The long school holidays happen. Harvest is finishing in many places. Whole businesses go on leave. Cricket and tennis, are in full swing. As a celebration of joy, and even excess, Christmas fits right in. It has a reality that is still not quite forgotten in secular Australia.
But Lent…? Who lent what?
Susan Smalley says in Huffington Post that
In the West, we tend to compartmentalize our time for spiritual practice if present (times of day or days of week) while in India it is constant -- morning to night, birth to death.
Of course India has its religious festivals, too. They come out of that spiritual atmosphere. Perhaps Lent is so low in my priorities because we do not have a “morning to night, birth to death” atmosphere. On this reasoning, we can see why Christmas works so well in Australia. We are “morning to night, birth to death” consumerists, and we long for a high dividend from our family relationships. This is what Christmas is really about in Australia. Christ runs a poor third; something that is reflected in the low awareness of Advent.
My colleague Janet said recently in a mail conversation, “For years, I personally had difficulty with the pressing weight of Jesus dying for my sins. The whole idea of God exacting that kind of punishment on Jesus made God really awful to me…” I couldn’t agree more. I constantly preach against this theology. Not by naming it and decrying, but by never mentioning it, talking instead about the love of God, the grace of God, and the joy of life, and the compassion of Jesus. In my life, Jesus is the pioneer of our faith (Hebrews) not the atoning sacrifice.
So why would I celebrate Lent? In the popular inherited story in my city, Lent is where you feel sorry for being bad, and causing so much trouble to land on Jesus' head. It’s an impoverished understanding of Lent, to be sure, but when a tradition is weak in its appeal, the inherited story is how we know it.
Theology is ultimately an attempt to put into words how, and why, we have been changed by encountering God. That means aspects of my theology may not resonate with you, because we have different experiences of life. Religious festivals, and religious devotion and rituals, work the same way.
The connection of a ritual to the divine, may be somewhat tenuous. For example, I have a fondness for an old hymn whose theology means I would never choose it for a worship service. It is not even included in our current hymnbooks. But I remember being on holidays at Nana’s with my Mum, when I was about ten. We sang this hymn at Nana’s church, and somehow, in a new way, I discovered I could sing! Despite its soppy sentimentality, the hymn connected the longings of a ten year old with the story of Jesus. And also that day, I first experienced that community of the church and its traditions which is independent of geography. So bound up with that hymn is a mix of devotion, and the joy of life, the love of my Mum who I had all to myself. I still sing it sometimes.
I remembered enough words from that one service, to then painstakingly tracking it down in the Methodist Hymn Book during boring, foot swinging sermons back at home. And I learned them by heart. What if Ash Wednesday had connected with me, as a child, in the way that old hymn did? Misgivings aside, I would be at an Ash Wednesday service tomorrow, for sure.
Symbol, devotion, and ritual ground us in our tradition. They ground our life, making it more real, by connecting it to a tradition which we share with others. Perhaps that is why I miss a Lenten discipline, even though, at another level, the rituals are off putting. Just like any Sunday when I sit ill at ease as we rehearse our worship tradition, I want to connect more with God. How may I ritualize and ground my life, and my sense of God?
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