I just remembered that it was Lent.
This comes as little surprise when I think about how difficult it’s been to recall what day of the week it is while we shelter-in-place through the COVID-19 pandemic, let alone being able to keep the season of the Christian calendar in mind. Over 1600 years ago, the church began to practice a 40-day period of fasting and repentance in preparation for Easter. These six weeks of self-reflection and denial have historically been designed to serve as a time for people of faith to consider and commiserate with the sufferings of Christ while seeking to develop a closer relationship to God prior to the celebration of resurrection.
Forty is a special number in the Bible. For forty days, the rain buoyed the boat of Noah while God gave justice urgency and humanity a chance. For forty years, the Israelites navigated the healing and building of a society that did not mimic the oppression of their past. For forty days, Jesus denied himself in the wasteland that he might have the wherewithal to refuse evil’s offer to own the world through the abuse of power. More than personal improvement, there was a bigger picture of justice in the desert-days of these biblical characters. A better world was the hope when relinquished privilege was the action.
But in modern times, this period following the raucous parties of Fat Tuesday and the solemn services of Ash Wednesday has often been observed through the renouncing of chocolate or alcohol, setting one’s alarm five minutes early for morning prayer, or giving up social media while with the family. Sometimes it is little more than a pious excuse for dieting. Frequently, like a religious New Year’s resolution, it’s forgotten by week three.
It may be safe to say that this version of Lent has regularly been revered in the same way that I have revered half-marathon trainings in the past—as a personal experiment to prove to myself that it can be done. There’s nothing wrong with self-betterment. I’m sure my physical heart has never been happier than in my running days. But it’s worth considering that Lent is most fully observed when the sacrifices being made are contributing to a more loving and just world, as Jesus’s sacrifice was the utmost contribution to a more loving and just world.
In this version of the season, maybe this means only reading books by women of color to support marginalized communities and challenge one’s biases. Maybe this means not eating meat to lessen our carbon footprint for the sake of the poor who are most affected by environmental injustice. Or maybe this means staying put for an indefinite amount of time so that fewer of our neighbors will get infected and the most vulnerable among us can have a better chance at living. Maybe it is most like the season of Lent to surrender to the type of sacrifice that most of the world is experiencing right now without any end date in sight, trusting that we are joined by God who can make us new even and especially in the desert.
This may be the strangest Lent we have ever experienced in modern times. It may also be the truest.
So as you fight the blurring of your hours and weeks, as you ride the roller coaster of emotions and war with monotony and dread, I invite you to see the message of Lent woven throughout this shared and sacred quarantine. Consider setting three daily alarms that can remind you to pray (there are examples below if you’d like to use them). And know that—as was in so many wilderness experiences before—God walks with us now and always, Easter is not a day in April as much as it is the moment that love wins, and no matter how long Lent lasts this year, resurrection is coming.
I greet the day remembering that the wilderness for the Israelites was liberation not damnation, preparation not punishment. Your people wandered the desert for forty years learning who they would be in freedom, how they would exist outside of Pharaoh’s possession, where they would walk with God, and how they would work to not perpetuate the violence they had themselves experienced. The journey offered space for becoming; the years offered time for connecting. Today, in this moment, I embrace the invitation of the desert, trusting it as a gift. Loving God, I hear your call.
From what enslavement does the wilderness free me?
What areas of my soul are being invited deeper into a journey?
I pause in the middle of this day remembering that there is purpose here too. When the mercies of the morning have dissipated and the rest of the night is still out of reach, this is when hope can shine. What was the Son of God feeling on day twenty of his fast? With no bread and nobody, did the halfway point feel disorienting? Did he question his strength to do what he’d already done all over again? Remind us that the midpoint is where it shifts; that it is accompanied by a voice whispering “I can again because I have already;” that the monotony and the hunger build the muscles for combatting the temptation to abuse power. Today, in this moment, I acknowledge the significance of the mundane, trusting it as crucial. Jesus, I see your solidarity.
What words of grace would I offer a friend dealing with the monotonous day’s middle?
I’ll take a moment to offer those words now to myself.
Before I fall asleep, I offer this day a chance to end. Rolling back my shoulders, relaxing my forehead, and stretching my toes as I’m able, I inhale the complexities of this season and exhale enough mercy for them all. Trusting the abundance of a backwards Kingdom, I can say in peace that scarcity is not reality, that people are intrinsically communal, and that hope will not disappoint us. Today, I was weak and I was strong; I was certain and I was confused; I was stable and I was anxious; I was dead and I was alive. Thank you for showing me human resilience in the desert, that I might trust the humans around me to handle every bit of me that I bring to the table amid uncertainties. And thank you for calling me to rest with the promise of another morning. Spirit, I feel your presence.
Where have I seen perfect love?
I will now meditate on how it drives out fear.
May you lean into the strangest Lent, inviting your sacrifices to shape and lead you, embracing the complexities and limitations of the desert and of yourself, and adding more justice and love to God’s good world. Amen.