Giving Up and Taking On Lent, and Life
So tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday, many–not all, but many–people in the Christian Church mark the beginning of Lent.
Even if you don’t observe it (either because your Christian tradition doesn’t, or because you’re not Christian) you may well have heard of the practice of giving something up for the duration of the season.
I get it. I get the idea.
But I’ve never liked it.
Giving something up for Lent never sat well with me.
It might be due to my own temptation to hold cheap the sacrifice, biding my time until Easter when I can get back in double whatever I’ve given up for a whopping whole….handful of weeks.
Maybe because if it’s worth the discipline of giving up for forty days, it might be worth giving up for the other 325. Might as well do the Fully Monty version of something worth 40 days of extreme dedication.
Maybe it’s never clicked with me because that which is given up often is something tokenesque, like chocolate, or knuckle-cracking.
The way I see it, if anything the world is made far better by more chocolate, and the overall balance of the world isn’t really shaken by the habit of fidgeting with fingers (though I admit it’s annoying–and I do it all the time).
But the giving-up-something-for-Lent thing bothers me mostly because I’ve long felt that it represents a misunderstanding about Lent.
Lent isn’t supposed to be regular-life-but-just-on-steroidal-doses-of-self-sacrifice.
The season of Lent is regular life.
In fact, I think there’s no other season in the Christian tradition that captures our regular life as well as Lent.
It’s bracketed on one end by Ash Wednesday, a day of promised bleakness.
Nobody is going to get out of here alive, says Ash Wednesday.
And if that weren’t enough, says the day, I can promise you that you are going to suffer some degree of pain.
You’re going to suffer pain not only that other people, other systems, and crazy unexpected twists and flukes of life inflict on you.
You will also, the day goes on, inflict pain on others.
And that is your promised reality. That’s how it goes down.
Awful as it is, not having enough chocolate or having your spouse or co-worker crack knuckles all day long are the least of your troubles, says Ash Wednesday.
It sounds stark, maybe even depressing, but it’s true.
Ash Wednesday is a day that doesn’t let us avoid the word, let alone the reality, of death.
It’s a day that doesn’t let us define death only of the six-foot-under variety, but reminds us of all sorts of deaths, like the deaths of relationships, expectations, inequalities, addictions, health, moves, vocations, peace, beliefs, integrity.
The Ash Wednesday strand in Lent pulls on both the brutal and somber.
Yet tugging from the other bookend of Lent is Easter.
It’s a day that holds a completely different promise, a competing promise, and, Christians would say, a real-er promise–not that Ash Wednesday is not real, of course.
But Easter’s promise says that while death is real, life is real-er.
Grass does kick through concrete.
It’s a day that says that death need not persist.
It’s a day that says that there’s no reason to offer death another victory by ceding control to it, ceding your life to it.
It’s a day that says that new beginnings come out of old endings.
It’s a day that says that there is more to do with our lives than preserve them.
It’s a day that says that says that grace isn’t doled out to those who deserve it, but is doled out to those who don’t.
Like to those who inflict pain on you.
Like to those who inflict pain on others.
In either case, like to you, and like to me.
This is why I believe that Lent is, really, the most familiar space, and the most trustable space, the most honest space, the most regular space in the Christian tradition.
We live Lent all the time.
Death and life meet here.
Grief and balm.
Despair and hope.
Reasons for dying and reasons for living.
That is pretty much as it is in each of our regular days.
Granted, we are usually able to conveniently keep that truth to the edges of our minds. We don’t like to intentionally mull over that we never know what each day will bring.
It’s probably best that way, I suppose. I don’t know if any of us could function, were we to be constantly aware of the real and regular moment-to-moment tension between death and life.
But the forty days of Lent don’t let us off so easily.
Lent invites us savor that side-by-side reality, both the unstinting truth that life can hurt, and that life can heal.
To that end, maybe there is something to be said for giving something up–while also taking something on.
Maybe there is something to integrating that balance, not only in the season of Lent, but in our regular lives.
We could give up our devotion to death. We could give up causing people pain, despising people who cause us pain, resenting pain, succumbing to pain.
We could take on gratitude for life. We could take on good humor, kindness, gentle meditation, and shared well-being.
At first glance, this might sound like the sort of schlock that Pollyanna would say.
But I don’t think that Pollyanna would like Lent very much.
It’s not a “Keep On The Sunny Side of Life” season.
It’s more “We-Shall-Overcome”-ish.
Lent doesn’t deny that there’s death, but it does deny death the ultimate coup.
Lent acknowledges that we are dust.
Lent owns up that we will return to it.
And Lent promises that still and even so, out of dust comes something new.
Lent tells the truth.
And there’s more to life than that.
So eat your chocolate (make it bitter chocolate if you must), break off a piece to share with someone who is sad, and someone who makes you sad (like your knuckle-cracking co-worker), while you enter and stay for a time in the honest, truthful, regular season of Lent.
Click here for prior OMG Ash Wednesday reflections.
There went my plans to go on a diet.
No, dear husb…anonymous reader. The point is you can do it all year ’round!
Thanks, Anna! I will be sharing this reflection with the adult Sunday school class I facilitate in conjunction with exploring the Living the Questions series, “Countering Pharoah’s Production-Consumption Society Today” featuring Walter Brueggemann. Your essay will be a good conversation partner with this series.
Thank you for the note, and the compliment! I’m grateful that you found the piece helpful and worth sharing. Might be the only time that I get the honor of being in the same room (let alone the same sentence) with Walter Brueggemann!