The Shape of Lent

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen | Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP | Flickr |

By Daniel Martins

Most Christians who keep Lent at all associate it with a montage of images, texts, and practices: some discipline of abstinence or self-denial, a weekly soup supper in the parish hall, a more subdued tone in Sunday worship, more attention paid to the suffering and death of Christ.

This is all meet and right, entirely wholesome, and to be commended. It is a rich spiritual harvest. But if we attend with just a small measure of extra care to the warp and woof of the season, if we interrogate Lent with just a bit of curiosity, expecting to see the unexpected, the harvest is even richer. Lent reveals itself to have a shape, a vector. It is configured to something. From the outside, it appears to be a relatively simple monolith. From the inside, it is a complex warren, laden with nutrition for the Christian soul.

Right at the outset, the liturgy for Ash Wednesday slaps us in the face, not just once, but twice. First, we are reminded of our mortality, with the sobering words uttered as ashes are imposed: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Then, while we are still trying to confront the inevitability of our death, we find ourselves peering into our sinfulness, forced to remember things we would just as soon forget. In the 1979 prayer book rite, the Litany of Penitence covers the bases toward this end amazingly well, and then Psalm 51 drives the point home with devastating clarity.

We do all this together, but it is very personal. The list of things that separate me from the love of God (per the third renunciation in the baptismal liturgy) is probably quite different from your list. On this score, the Collect for the First Sunday in Lent is reassuring: Jesus knows the weaknesses of each of us. Salvation looks the same for everyone — purgation from every sinful impulse, and a character that perfectly reflects that of Christ — but the route to that place looks different for each person, and each person, for that reason, finds Jesus “mighty to save.”

The sorts of abstinence and ascetical practices that might be enormously fruitful for you might be wholly ineffective for me if I were to adopt them. For example, I am a diabetic in early old age, so abstaining from meat for more than a day or two at a time is problematic for me.

For probably a dozen consecutive years when I was younger, I signed up for the 3-4 a.m. time slot before the Altar of Repose on Maundy Thursday leading into Good Friday. In time, that created too many problems. People are different from one another, and different even from themselves in the course of a lifetime. Jesus, the one who died to save all of us, saves each of us.

It might not easily dawn on everyone that, in the scheme by which we name the various Sundays of the liturgical year, prepositions matter a great deal. Sundays are of Advent and Easter, for example, and after Epiphany and Pentecost, but in Lent. We think of Lent as 40 days long, but if you start counting from Ash Wednesday, you’ll fall well short of Easter by the time you reach 40 — unless you omit Sundays. Since every Sunday is a feast of our Lord’s resurrection, these Sundays can be in Lent but not of it.

Opinions among those who offer spiritual counsel are divided on this question, but I believe there is a strong case not merely for overlooking the breaking of self-imposed Lenten abstinence on the Lord’s Day, but for encouraging it. Lent is not an endurance contest. It is not some means by which we can achieve our personal best in the demonstration of our tenacity and willpower. So, unless you are trying to exploit Lent as an aid in getting rid of an attachment that is intrinsically harmful to you or others (smoking, overeating, abusing alcohol), it is probably a healthy discipline for most Lent-observing Christians to let Sunday be Sunday, and for those whose besetting sin is inordinate pride (“Look how strong and determined I am”), it may actually be imperative.

In the Western liturgical tradition, the Fourth Sunday in Lent acts very subtly as a sort of hinge, informally but effectively delineating two sub-seasons. It goes by several names: Rose Sunday (hence, the rose-colored vestments used twice a year in some parishes), Laetare Sunday or Jerusalem Sunday (both references to the Latin introit in the Roman Rite), Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday.

The tone begins to shift from the individual to the communal, from an inward focus on the self to an outward focus on the saving work of Christ. This becomes clear when one examines the two proper prefaces for Lenten celebrations of the Eucharist provided in the Book of Common Prayer (1979). Both are solidly Christocentric and Paschal in their emphasis, but one looks inward and backward (“By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again”), while the other looks outward and forward (“You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast”). The first directs our attention to our sinfulness and the pardon offered by God in Christ; the second directs our attention to the acts of God in Christ that make such pardon possible.

From then on, the direction of Lenten energy leads compellingly and inexorably to the cross, and what God accomplished there for all humankind. It’s not that our individual selves and our individual sins no longer matter: they matter immensely. They merely pale in significance alongside that which is their antidote, their remedy. As we move through Lent, the theme becomes “less of me and more of Jesus, less of me and more of us.” “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” This is itself a school of holiness, a preparation for our eschatological destiny.

But this Lenten transition should come as no surprise. We were warned clear back on Ash Wednesday. The celebrant invited the people to the “observance of a holy Lent,” having first reminded them of the season’s origins in the annual observance of “the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.” To adapt a popular trope from another context: Easter is the reason for the season.

The late Mormon motivational speaker and author Stephen Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, invites readers to “Begin with the end in mind.” It turns out that all the inward-focused attention to our mortality and our sinfulness has a context, and that context is the Paschal Mystery. Without the context, it is just a fruitless exercise in narcissism, and lacks any compelling element of hope. Within such a context, we understand our journey through Lent as a movement from glory to glory.

The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is Bishop of Springfield.


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