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I’ve spent most of my years as a pastor trying to get people to not give up (or even add) something during Lent, but rather to shift their thinking.
I mean, if cutting out chocolate helps you enter into the suffering of Christ, go for it.
But what I’ve found is centering the discussion around fasting is yet another way for the modern Church to take the easy way out (and its critics to take pot shots) – preferring superficiality and guilt over-against transformation. As Fr. Rohr likes to say, transformation comes from great love or great suffering, and Lent as a season is intended to show us both.
The great orthodox priest and scholar, Alexander Schmemann called this season a “bright sadness” because it is our dark baptismal-like journey through death toward the bright dawn of Easter. In our association with Christ’s suffering and death (which fasting is intended to help with) we are able to recognize the slowness of our hearts to turn with loving eyes upon the world, truly seeing our neighbors not as objects of our charity or scorn or affection, but as image bearers. (Back to the I-Thou vs I-It relationship.)
We forget because… reasons. Life gets in the way, we become concerned with cares both trivial and weighty, and forget that a human is, again Schmemann: “by nature and vocation a pilgrim of the Absolute,” that we collectively headed somewhere. I don’t mean some ethereal heaven but the way we walk through this pilgrimage as individuals impacts where we move as a unit. And, since we regularly lose that “nostalgic desire for another Reality” we need a rhythm to bring us back. Enter the liturgical year.
Advent helps us ask what, exactly, we are expecting from the I Am, and will we be able to recognize It when it appears?
Christmas to let us bask in the blinding ordinariness of the Incarnation.
Epiphany to suddenly surprise us as we realize that we are the ongoing Incarnation, the locus of the Cosmic Christ on earth.
Lent for seeing how far short we fall in that calling – and the long road of suffering that will be required of those who wish to walk with Christ.
Easter, where we feast in the possible-impossibility of Love’s answer to all our attempts to save ourselves and end our own violence. Where we find Death is defeated by first Christ then us allowing it to become a passage to a new and different world.
Ordinary Time, for the fields of souls to lie fallow as we are taught to “number our days” and see the holy in the midst of the mundane.
And back to Advent.
The problem, of course is that when your personal and communal faith expression isn’t deeply rooted in this story – returning to it year after year, allowing the sheer weight of time to impress its importance upon your heart – you will miss the transformation and substitute a series of pious activities instead.
Sure, you do the Advent wreath and talk about expectation, and make sure you read the “Christmas story” before opening presents, and (well, we skip Epiphany, don’t we?) decide what you’re going to give up for Lent (or add in if you want to be “counter-cultural”), and talk about how much the Easter Bunny annoys you. Yeah, we do it all. But the pilgrimage of faith leaves no discernible print upon our heart’s trail because our hearts are not attuned to its transformational message, merely our actions and sentiment.
So for Lent this year I’m not giving up anything.
Personally I feel like I’ve already lost enough and what I need most right now is to use this time of bright sadness take stock of the how the dark – which God made as well – has penetrated my soul and made it an appropriate vessel for light just on the horizon.
If Christ has suffered, all suffering is hallowed.
If Christ has died, all death is a passage.
If Christ has descended, can even Hell remain unchanged?
If Christ has been raised, what now is as it once was?
Blessings on your faith journey in this season.