Dear People of God:
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
-From the liturgy for Ash Wednesday page 264 in the Book of Common Prayer
Invitation to Lent
My wife sometimes tells me I would have made a good monk. I don’t know if that’s compliment or complaint. I am finding that social distancing is not as challenging for me as it might be for some of my more extroverted colleagues. It does strike me as strangely appropriate that we contend with all of this in the season of Lent. So here we are. Here’s what we’ve been given. So the persistent faith question: What will we do with what we’ve been given?
The season of Lent has specific intentions, articulated in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. The officiant invites people to the observance of a holy Lent (included above). I’ve been thinking about those intentions, reflecting on how we respond to them in this particular, peculiar, perilous season:
Self-examination: Unsettling global events have a way of driving self-examination. Add to that isolation and we have time and space to reflect on our own lives. What do we value? What is important? Where are we giving our hearts? We see too many examples of the unexamined life. Case in point, from the shores of Florida as hordes of revelers flocked to the beach. One told a journalist: “If I get Corona, I get Corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” I don’t mean to pick on the kid. I just wonder if he holds up any kind of mirror for me.
Repentance: One of the challenges of school closings is that we have millions of kids who won’t have meals otherwise. How did that happen in a country of such prosperity? This is just one example of the need for a collective change of direction, which is what repentance is all about. Where else do we hear the call to repentance, as a community and as individuals? How can we turn from a life focused on self and move in the direction of a life focused on others?
Prayer: As I said last week, in times like this, prayer should be first response, not last resort. A friend told me that her pastor once said from the pulpit that he had gone through a personal crisis and had tried everything. Nothing worked. So he decided to pray about it. A last resort, perhaps a rare moment of candor from clergy, the admission that in many ways, for much of the time, we are functional atheists. What would it mean to recognize God’s presence in the thick of this current mess? What would it mean to talk with God about that, a lot? To draw on strength beyond ourselves, the kind of help we now need? To pray without ceasing, as St. Paul advises.
Fasting: In Lent, that can mean going without food, booze, sweets. Maybe some fasts will be presented to us without our choosing. We may find that some things we considered to be necessities of life suddenly aren’t so important. The New Yorker cartoon shows the guy forced to work at home. Caption: It’s true. All those meetings could have just been emails!
Self-denial: Self-quarantine is just one example. It’s no fun, especially for those non-monks among us. But if ever there was a time to get ourselves out of the way and focus on others, focus on the greater good, this might be it. What might we give up for the sake of others? How might we orient our energies towards workers who lost their jobs? What creative, compassionate responses can we offer for people who work in hospitality industries? What can we do for folks under the radar: elderly living alone, homeless under the bridge, parents losing sleep in the middle of the night over unpaid bills, health workers lacking equipment they need? The list goes on.
Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word: You don’t have to dig deep to find biblical stories that parallel our current crisis. I don’t simply mean the various plagues visited on biblical peoples. I think of the oppression of the Pharaohs, the exodus through the wilderness, exile from homeland, the way of the cross, the persecution of the early church. The psalms are filled with stories of folks who feel like God has abandoned them. In other words, what we experience has been experienced before, in varied form. And God was present in it all.
Can you see how the intentions of the Lenten season correspond to this moment? As grim as it may seem, as cloudy the future, as people of faith, we can withstand when we can’t understand. We can proclaim when we can’t explain. And here’s what we proclaim this Monday morning: People of faith have made the journey through this kind of thing before. They came to realize, as we will, that they were not left alone in that journey. They discovered that dead ends can indeed become thresholds. And as Julian of Norwich said, as her ministry unfolded in the midst of plague, they knew that in the end, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
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