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It seems that we’ve only recently ended a holy season, one that is familiar to all and celebrated publicly with bell ringing, gift giving and parties galore. Though not true for all, most people are uplifted by the camaraderie they experience, the gathering of family and friends. We color the time in red and green, warm colors that lighten and brighten even the dimmest of days.
Now, we are plunged into much more sedate moments, a stretch of purple that spans 40 days. It is a penitential season, a prayerful preparation for the great feast of Easter, the holiest of our high holy days.
It is a time for remembering what is really important in life. The paradox is we remember life by “re-membering” death. During Lent, we are asked to remember that we must be willing to die to our selfish ways if we wish to live, really live.
From the earliest days of Christianity, this process of remembrance was accompanied by strict fasting, additional prayer and other penitential exercises. Candidates for baptism during the Easter Vigil were proved to be serious applicants during this season by adhering to an asceticism rarely witnessed today.
A somber spirit descended upon both church and churchgoers. Music was less spirited or even omitted. Floral arrangements disappeared. Weddings and other joyous celebrations were discouraged or prohibited.
There was a sense we all needed to prepare, to take stock of who we were and where we were going so that we’d be ready for Easter’s resurrection. We needed to touch base, again, with the bare bones of our belief.
During my grammar and high school days, I embarked on a similar journey. In those days, little children were not exempt from choosing some form of self-denial. Typically, we “gave up” candy or other treats for the entire time.
The legalists among us stated Sundays didn’t count, so we could “break our fast” on those days. The more rigorously obedient ones gritted our teeth and bore the pain of denial until the magic moment of Easter arrived and gorging on previously forbidden fruits began.
Somehow, we lost the point of it all. We were children, so I guess that allowed for some leniency. However, we seem to have carried the notions into our adulthood, finding loopholes in the law or being overtly pious in our sense of obedience.
Neither attitude matched the spirit of Lenten discipline. Neither one grasped the power of penance as entry into a death experience so we might better understand life, not as return to what we always did, but as entry into a radically new life, a totally transformed way of being.
Although Lent wasn’t a perfect experience when we were young, it was an experience. Hopefully, it was a time given, not so much for us to gain new information as to live a sacrificial life. We did experience hunger. We did experience a spiritual scrutiny. We did experience prayer.
We experienced a distinctive bleakness that culminated in three hours of total silence from noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday. Forgetting all else, I never cease to recall those long hours endured without any sound. No conversation occurred. Radios were turned off. Everyone was quietly entering into the final torment, the excruciating soundlessness of the Innocent One offering his life for ours.
That’s part of how it used to be...for me and many others. How is it today? What is Lent today? How do we experience its painful power as God’s people, no matter what denomination we profess?
Perhaps we don’t “give up” anything, but we can choose to “give to.”
Send a letter, not a quick email, to someone who is lonely. Visit a person unable to be up and about. Walk on the beach with a friend. Grieve with a griever. Forty days of Lent give us forty opportunities to become what we profess to be: godly people.
We could opt to starve ourselves in ways other than abstaining from food. Dare I suggest we might deny ourselves treats like watching television and giving ourselves the gift of contemplative silence?
We could forsake playing rounds of golf or going out to eat and let our hunger be translated into food for others. Our golf game could become a phone call, eating out would translate into asking someone who lives alone to come for dinner at our home or offering an invitation to join in the ecumenical Lenten worship services offered each Wednesday at noon by the Greater Shallotte Ministerial Association.
The purple color of Lent would then deepen into a hue that depicts a passion for life lived fully, lived in the company of others. This might be wrenching for those of us who like routine, thrive on schedules, prefer the known, the comfortable, the usual flow of our days and weeks, or personal solitude.
Lent is here again. Resolutions are taken out of the dusty nooks and crannies of abandoned resolve to be brought out for review and renewed effort. Grand promises are made…to quit smoking...go on a diet...get more exercise...sacrifice desserts...give up alcohol.
Brave intentions they are; all of them, good decisions. No one could ever fault us for citing them. Yet, there are more important questions to be asked. Are these the intentions and decisions that will empower us to repent...to return to God...to rest in the nearness of God’s word? Will they bring us closer to God? Will they afford us the strength we need as we journey into divine life? Will they promote a deepening belief that “human persons do not live on bread alone, but on every word which comes from the mouth of God?” (Matthew 4:4)
No one can answer those questions for us. No one knows what motivations prompt our options. Only we can determine the reasons for choices made, or not taken.
Each of us, individually, must come to grips with our personal Lenten journey. Each of us has to decide that Lent is not, and cannot be, just a period of time. There must be more to it.
Lent must be an attitude.
When we live with a Lenten attitude, we are actively declaring our creatureliness and God’s creative power rendered in and through us. We are also responding graciously to the divine request that we bring to God the whole basket of human existence. This is the unique moment when we set all of it, all of ourselves “in front of the altar of God, crying out in trust that God will bring us out of this slavery with outstretched arm...with terrifying power...with signs and wonders.” (Paraphrase: Dt. 26:4-5)
Yesterday’s Lent is lived as we can today or it is not lived at all.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.