Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a season similar to Advent in the sense that it is observed in an almost commercial way by people who don’t necessarily identify as Christians. During Advent, stores abound with Advent calendars that enable us to wait with expectation, not for the coming birth of Jesus, but for the time when we can open each cardboard window and devour the chocolate it conceals. When Lent comes along, we try to make up for this daily treat by refusing to eat chocolate for forty days and we wait with eager anticipation for Easter when we can resurrect our sweet tooth, binging on Easter candy until we ascend into a sugar high. Or we give up Facebook in an attempt to be more productive with our time or avoid a certain food in order to lose weight. In all of these things that we give up, we have this very individualistic focus, of trying to improve ourselves in a way that will impress others, despite the fact that Lent starts with the reading from Matthew that tells us to “beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them”. It becomes a competition in self-control, where we gauge our own “fasting” against that of others. The few days before Ash Wednesday are abuzz with people asking, “what are you giving up for Lent?” and as the season progresses, you always know which people have given up dessert because they glare at you if you even mention the word ‘cookie’. And I hate that. I hate that Lent becomes just another diet plan. Traditionally, Lent is a time of drawing closer to God through prayer, fasting, and serving others but in America today, it seems we’ve dropped the parts about God and others and chosen to just pay attention to the parts about ourselves. But I think one of the most beautiful things about the season of Lent is how it brings a worship community together. Originally, Lent was a time where the community gathered in support around those preparing for baptism, and today Lent is one of the only seasons in the church year where it feels like church extends outside the boundaries of Sunday morning. For one thing, Lent is the only season (apart from Christmas) where people not only come to church on a day that is not Sunday, but they expect that there will be services on a Wednesday, a Thursday, a Friday, and a Saturday during the season of Lent. But the season also carries a sense of intentionality with it that follows us outside the church walls. Fasting or “giving up” something can remind us of this intentionality but it can so easily become self-centered as well. I always picture Lent as a clearing out of my life, a sort of spring-cleaning, where I create openings for God to move into. Others may feel differently, but giving up desserts does not open up space for God in my life. It usually just distracts me even more, draining my energy and will power as I try to exercise constant self-control. In a weird, backwards fashion, it seems that the things we give up most often during Lent actually bring more distractions and problems—it builds more barriers between us and God, not less.
There’s a Mary Oliver poem, The Sun, that ends by asking, “do you think there is anywhere, in any / language, / a word billowing enough / for the pleasure / that fills you, / as the sun / reaches out, / as it warms you / as you stand there, / empty-handed—/ or have you too / turned from this world— / or have you too / gone crazy / for power, / for things?”
This is my vision of Lent. We don’t have a word billowing enough for the feeling of basking in God’s presence but we stand in the glow anyway, empty-handed and mystified, searching for the right way to pray, striving to turn to—and not from—this world, to not go crazy for power, for things. And God reaches out and meets us where we are. God flows into the open spaces in our lives and reminds us why we believe, why we follow, why we stand here empty-handed. Because God loves this world so much that God sends a Son, God’s only Son, to die so that we may live, to scoop up our broken lives and make them whole, to take us by the hand and pull us away from our power, our things, and usher us out into the billowing light of God. A gift like that can’t be comprehended in the space vacated by chocolate but we have forty days stretched out ahead of us, unbroken and full of open spaces. Let’s enter them with intention, arms outstretched and hands empty, letting God move into the open spaces.