More Than About Forgiveness: Mourning, Suffering, and Why I Want My Lent With Alleluias
Here’s the two-fold gist of this Ash Wednesday/Gearing-Up-For-Lent blog:
The cross (and therefore Lent) is not just for sinners, but also for those sinned upon and those who suffer; and we shouldn’t give up our Alleluias during Lent.
To the first:
Lord knows that I am all about forgiveness, and I’m betting that you are all about it too.
We all know that we need it, and we all hope that nobody else but God knows why.
Now, Lutherans have a particular thing about the cross, because we see it as an historical event confirming that sin doesn’t win.
That bent is in large part because of Luther, and because of where Luther sat in history.
500 years ago, the primary, crushing crisis of the day was that of indulgences: people had to pay to receive them for the forgiveness of sins (“Just as the coin in the coffer rings, so a soul from purgatory springs,” à la Tetzel etc.).
That bothered Luther to no end, and it therefore initiated/ignited the Reformation.
The Gospel, which carries a message that grace is abundantly available to all, was threatened by a distortion that grace can be bought, and that it could be bought with no attached repentance.
Lutherans ran with that forgiveness-and-grace-for-all ball, and are still running with it 500 years down the field.
So, the good news is that for 500 years, people have been hearing that they are forgiven. That definitely counts as good news.
But a bad news consequence of that focus, a flip side of this constant, consistent message, is that people have been led to believe that forgiveness pretty much sums up the scoop of the gospel.
Forgiveness is sure part of the gospel.
But the cross speaks more than just the promise of forgiveness.
The cross also speaks of God’s solidarity with those who suffer.
The cross also speaks of God’s grasp of deep grief.
The cross also speaks of the apparent impossibility of living through pain, and loss, and torment.
I’m convinced that a focus only on forgiveness leaves those who mourn and who suffer wondering what that primal, primary event has to do with and for them.
But what would happen if we made it a Lenten practice to embrace the width and breadth of the cross, one which embraces not only those who have caused pain, but those who suffer it too?
What if we gave regular Lenten room for the lament not just of those who cry out for mercy because of guilt, but who cry out for mercy because of grief, of brokenhearedness, of broken relationships, of loneliness, of exhaustion, of fear, of isolation, of abuse, of oppression, of physical pain, of emotional hurt, of mental anguish?
On Ash Wednesday, we mark our mortality on our foreheads, of course.
The thing of it is, for many, death is not just something yawning from the future: it laces itself throughout every day.
And Good Friday isn’t just a once-a-year deal: it can range from a crisis lasting from a relatively small sliver of time to a 24 hour a day/7 day a week/52 weeks out of every interminable year deal.
How can we honor these experiences as legit Lenten stuff too, or, more precisely, as legit cross stuff too?
And, in a related qustion, to the second point:
What would happen if we considered breaking the taboo of not singing our Alleluias during Lent?
I never did get that rubric, I confess, though I did get an E for effort.
Seems to me that if we are people of the gospel, of the eu-angelion, of the good-news, that Easter informs every element of who we are, regardless of the liturgical season in which we sit.
In fact, it seems that Lent, namely the season in which we intentionally linger in the emotions and expressions of grief, mourning, guilt, and remorse, is perhaps the perfect time to be reminded of the essential news, the life-giving news that despair need not, will not, win.
Hope, in other words, is present, even when it seems that it is exactly the absent thing.
I’ve come to decide that without being laced through and through with Easter knowledge, Lent can feel like 40 days of masochistic liturgical Ouch.
Truth is, we can’t appreciate the import of the cross, regardless of whether it offers forgiveness and/or comfort and/or hope, if we don’t know Easter.
The cross left alone is an announcement that death does win.
The cross left alone calls life a wrap, and via suffering to boot.
The cross left alone gives no hope for Odes to Joy, and leaves us only with Odes to Lament.
That’s messed up.
A person needs at least an Ode to Hope to get us through our Lenten season(s).
What is Easter if not reason to sing an Ode to Hope, and does it not deserve an Alleluia, even (especially?) during Lent?
Mentor Walt Bouman spoke of how living the Christian life is like reading a mystery novel…starting with the last chapter first.
If you read the last chapter first, and then begin at the beginning, you enter into the story differently.
You realize what door to avoid (not to mention what person), and about what (and whom) you should care, and the degree to which you should be invested in either grief or joy.
His point (aside from being totally wrong about how he should read mystery lit) was that as Christians, we have read the last chapter first.
We know the end of the story.
We know that, as I like to say, death is real, but life is real-er.
We know that Good Friday is a Thing, and tears are a Thing, and disillusionment is a Thing, and loss is a Thing, and grief and regret and fear and fatigue and lament are all Things.
But we are different than the women at the tomb, and the disciples at the cross.
We are no different in our experiences of sorrow, of course, but we are different because we know that Jesus did not stay dead.
We read the last chapter.
That doesn’t negate that sometimes we still open the wrong doors, get attached to the wrong people, and suffer the death of others—and always, looming, our own.
But it does negate the purported final triumph of the loss, the anger, the emptiness, and the pain.
I think that rather than inviting people to ignore their negative experiences during this season, by framing Lent with Easter, and lacing it through with some Alleluias even through our tears, we welcome people to all the more to actually feel the negative experiences that make the Alleluias all the more poignant, and welcome, and necessary.
At the same time, I believe we also validate these events and emotions.
By naming that the cross isn’t just about forgiveness, but about a wide swath of grief and suffering, we acknowledge them, we honor them, and we stand with those who feel them.
You see, God did not intend people to suffer or to mourn, and certainly not alone.
A person wouldn’t know that, however, if a person didn’t know Easter.
Death would be God’s Last Word.
That cross on our Wednesday foreheads would be all we need, because that would be the final truth.
Good thing for us, though, the event of the cross is one bracket on some holy three days: Easter frames the other end of the Paschal Triduum.
We need both, for both are true.
Without the cross, Easter is superfluous.
And without Easter, the cross is victor.
And without Lent, we have no community to engage in two sacred acts: to acknowledge and wipe away our tears of grief, and of mourning, and (of course) of sinfulness; and to sing us into (and perhaps, for a spell, sing on our behalf) hopeful Alleluias nevertheless and in the in-between times of our lives.
Lent, in other words, is not just a season.