The Liminality and the Life of Lent
Even pre-pandemic, but especially mid-pandemic, who among us is not beyond over limits.
Those so-last-year normal, garden-variety frustrating limits we faced on the regular, like the limits of time, budget, abilities, vocational options, caloric intake, viable dreams (and please, once more—I’m begging now—may I have more time), these limits were already tiresome.
But nowadays, thank you Coronavirus, we face those limits and we have to extend our limit list to include limited gatherings, limited worship, limited school days, limited work, limited eating out, limited travel, limited recreation, limited finances, and (in case I haven’t yet mentioned my personal limit albatross), really really really limited time.
I do believe that, a year in to Covid, the word ‘limit’ should enter the Adult Language Lexicon.
It turns out that ‘limit’ comes from the Latin word limitem meaning a boundary, or a border.
And it turns out that it is related to the word ‘liminal,’ which means ‘a place at the threshold.’
A liminal space, then, is the in-between space between limits.
It’s a disorienting, mysterious, nebulous, scary, and thrilling place, all at once, and in its midst, a person is helpless, faced by an infinite set of options compressed, paradoxically, within a very finite set of limits.
This week, on Ash Wednesday, we began the season of Lent.
And how do we liturgical Christians inaugurate this season, year after year?
By imprinting a definitive limit on our foreheads.
On that day, every time we look at ourselves in the mirror, or we look at others—mirrors themselves of our own mortality—we are reminded of the most inhibiting limit of all: that of death.
From the inception of the season—Ash Wednesday—to its culmination—Good Friday—Lent is both framed by and imbued with the notion of limits.
The whole point of the season is that limits don’t just happen: we are, essentially—that is in our very essence—limited.
So it shouldn’t be any surprise that the Christian tradition has taken this season straight on down the path of solemnity.
Lent is a reminder of that which we already know, but try—and really are quite masterful in our attempts—to escape.
We are limited.
We are born, we die.
”Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Talk about limits.
That’s a pretty clear set of brackets we’ve got there.
And everything—even our capacity for good, say Christians—is limited by them.
The only thing that isn’t limited is our need for redemption.
And perhaps imagination.
That, and, thankfully, God’s grace.
Nonetheless, I get it.
I understand why we have, as a tradition, dedicated the intentional time of Lent to the deep value of focusing on our mortality, our sinfulness, our need for repentance.
But this year, just as I did in Advent, I’m entering the season of Lent differently, which means I’m seeing it differently.
This year, I’m in this liminal space of loving someone.
So apropos to liminality, everything is informed by that utterly disorienting, mysterious, nebulous, scary, and thrilling truth, and I am helpless in its midst.
Surprisingly, I’m discovering I’m ok with all of that.
It turns out that among this gentleman’s many swoon-worthy features, he happens to have fine taste in music.
He’s introduced me to all sorts of tunes by different artists, in a variety of genres, and with distinct lyrical themes.
My repertoire is about caught up to where it should have been long ago.
I am now way way hipper than I was, and were that not such a low bar to cross, it would be a substantially more impressive announcement than it appears to be.
Of all of the music he’s sent my way, the lyrics of one song in particular have grabbed my attention: Jason Isbell’s If We Were Vampires.
It’s a love song, to be sure, but not your garden variety love song—as the title itself makes clear.
You hear “vampire,” and you think “I want to suck your blood,” which is not in the top ten list of successful come-on lines, let’s be frank.
But the point of Isbell’s tune isn’t about capes and long teeth, but rather about limits—or, rather, the lack of them.
When you aren’t bounded by the limit of mortality, Isbell’s lyrics sing, the value of everything is diminished.
In fact, the value of everything is empty, is lost.
In this interview found here, Isbell explains what moved him to write this song.
He says he began to ask himself these questions: “What is it, really? Really? Why do I care? Why does anybody care about anybody else to make themselves this vulnerable…”?
And then it dawns on him: “This is it. That’s all we get. We get this time on earth and then that’s it. We don’t know what’s next, if anything.”
It’s true, he says, that his beloved’s dress is beautiful, and so is she.
Her trust in him, her love for him, her support of him, these are also all true.
But Isbell sings this true-er truth: neither her dress, nor her beauty, nor her vulnerability, nor her love for him, nor even their lovemaking, none of these would matter, none of it at all, if the truth of it all weren’t fleeting.
If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind
Both my love and I know the truth of the death of one whom we’ve cherished.
The risk of falling in love again, the risk of embracing another, the risk of loss…it’s all inexpressibly risky.
And yet, here we are, drawn to this liminal space.
But why is any of this risky?
Because love is, life is, temporal.
Everything can, and will, end.
And that, right there, that is why love is, life is, beautiful.
None of it can be taken for granted, because it could be gone in an instant.
Precisely therefore, then, love and life are to be treasured, delighted in, cherished, and protected.
We are to stand in wondrous awe of it all.
Last night, my father was telling me of a Jewish tale he’s heard along the way.
He can’t quite place it, he said, but the gist of it is that a man died, met his maker, and found God staring at him sternly. “Why,” asked God of the man, “why did you not delight in the gift of my creation while you were alive?”
I would love to find the story, but even as it stands in its incompleteness, it offers holy truth.
Lent, like life, is liminal.
Distinct from the normal pattern of life, in Lent we begin with death, and end with new life.
We have forty days within to focus on anything, anything at all.
It is worth noting that the opposite of death is not life, but birth.
Life, life is what happens in-between those markers.
So Lent, actually, is a season of life!
Instead, what do we do with it?
We tend to opt to turn the focus of these 40 days onto death.
What, I wonder, what would happen if we turned our Lenten focus instead on finite life?
What would happen if we began to consider Lent from the perspective of liminality, like Isbell invites lovers to do?
I can’t help but wonder if we would instead engage the season less with somberness, and more with gratitude driven not by guilt, but rather infused by delight.
I wonder if we would see Lent as a way to invite us to savor as long as we can, to steward ourselves as well as possible, to sit in perplexed, astonished wonderment of it all, even (gasp! in Lent!) to celebrate the goodness that is God’s gift of creation.
Life is fleeting.
Life is limited.
But perhaps exactly therefore, life is all the more to be embraced, and, paradoxically, embraced with no limits to our love of it all, at all.
(P.S. For movie aficionados, the glorious Babette’s Feast is another way to consider this same message: might be a wonderful congregational Lenten adult study!)
You can hear this blog on my 10 minute recording of it here!