If you read the post in December regarding Advent, you may be getting the idea that I like the idea of a Church Calendar, or Liturgical Seasons. It’s not a bad assumption when you put that post alongside this one. But then, it is a rather odd thing for someone like myself to be so engaged with, after all, I wasn’t raised in any liturgical contexts. I thought I ought to give a brief background, then, on how I came to this appreciation of the church calendar before telling you why I love Lent as much as Advent.
My first exposure to anything like a church season was in high school when students discussed what they were “giving up” for Lent. I had only the faintest idea what that could mean based on a few years in Illinios in a predominantly Catholic farming town. But I had no concept of Lent and being governed by a calendar within the church. I think I thought the entire thing was a rather ridiculous Catholic doctrine, probably similar to Indulgences and trying to buy or earn your salvation. I was a pretty strict Protestant who thought you could only make Catholics into Christians if you converted them out from under Papal authority. The students at school didn’t help much either. They were giving up rather arbitrary things for this bizarre season of 40 days. Everything from chocolate to masturbation was going to be put on hold for just over a month. Try explaining to a fifteen year old how refraining from those somehow pleases God! The only student I knew who was serious about this whole thing was a weird Catholic in the back of my Spanish class who was a humble know it all (not like the sarcastic group I was in) with brown frizzy hair and shirts that didn’t fit properly. When she showed up the day after Mardi Gras with grey soot smeared on her forehead, I knew for sure I didn’t want anything to do with this Lenten thingy.
But in college I went to my first Ash Wednesday service. It was a rather beautiful service, we read through some of Joel that bespoke the longing for someone to come and save the people of Israel. The reader sat down and a professor gave a brief homily on the passage and he said that we too are waiting. We know that Christ has come. In fact, we know how the Lenten season ends–with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Yet, we still experience longing, dissatisfaction and a deeply holy discontent. The professor reread Joel and whispered from the pulpit. We’re waiting.
College was an interesting season of life for me. I loved my foray into Academia, I loved Seattle and I loved the rain. But there were other things in college that made the three years long and hard. In many ways it was a dark season, only punctuated by brief bursts of light. People speak of college as thought it was the greatest time in life, as though they wish to return. I had the opposite feeling. I wanted out of college, and it couldn’t end soon enough. I knew prolonged dissatisfaction in those days, I knew it more deeply than I do now. Something inside of me resonated with the speaker that day in the chapel across from the Loop on campus. I was waiting, just as much as the Israelites were, for someone, someone to come and rescue us.
Lent, then, is about waiting. Most of the church seasons are about waiting, Lent, Epiphany, Advent they are all looking forward to something that is yet to come. They all hope for the future. Each one has a specific event in mind which the believer is meant to be prepared for through the season.
But Lent is more than just preparation and excitement.
In Lent we enter the desert.
This is why we “give up” something that we hold close and dear. Last year my roommate and I drank only water for forty days. I discovered how much I really love coffee. We enter the desert by sacrifice, and that sacrifice should be something tangible. Some of my fellow young adults will give up Facebook. I understand that they see it as ann addiction and that this is the reason for relinquishing it for forty days. But at the same time, you can survive easily and comfortably without Facebook. It’s different to give up something that almost defines who we are. For me, that is coffee (and other drinks). My social life revolves around “coffee dates” or “grabbing a drink.” To give that up means I will have to indulge in more solitude, or standing out while in a crowd of friends at the Old Mill.
But that is, at the very least, rather simplistic way of entering into the Desert with Christ.
Jesus, I think, dwelt in many deserts during his time on earth. He gave up the expanses of heaven, for one, to be settled in a tiny scrap of land off the coast of the Mediterranean in an era without plumbing, air conditioning or convenient transportation. He gave up freedom, in a way, because he came knowing the end of his life would be horrific and nearly unavoidable. He endured the worst kind of hypocrisy among his fellow human beings, they were rejecting him at the same time that they claimed to worship him!* He was patient with foolish and slow learners. He was angered by injustice and he lived a menial existence. He was a lower middle class carpenter for crying out loud.
Of course, Lent does not necessarily recognize each of those as the desert into which we enter but rather that of Jesus when he endured his temptations. It also centers on the path leading to the cross–the interminable wait, the agonizing steps to Jerusalem when he set his face toward the holy city and knew there was no turning back. It is the descent to the cross. The song of the coming suffering.
This is what we engage when we too attempt to give up a part of ourselves and dwell in the gap before the cross. We reflect on what sent him to the cross, and looking hopefully to the resurrection. Self denial forces us to be emptied, so that we may then be filled. But self denial is hard–which is what makes it good.
It makes us aware of our distinct and unfortunate human nature that is so easily entangled by the world. It reminds us that Jesus has given up everything to secure our final place with him. It foments in our minds the joyous burden of suffering and perseverance that we too may be counted worthy if indeed greater trials should ever arise. And it reminds us that this life is not what it was meant to be, not what life was supposed to look like. It forces us to look at each day and remember that there will come a time when things will be put to rights.
Jesus is coming, you see. He already has come. We’re walking with him now, to the cross of our salvation. But we hold that in tension with the fact that those we now celebrate a historical fact, there is something else coming, something greater, something fuller.
But we’re waiting.
All we ever do is wait.
Waiting for the glorious resurrection and hoping for the consummation of the ages when Messhia comes back and leads captives in his train and gives gifts to men who have long awaited his triumphant rescue.
*without realizing it was him. instead they claimed they knew the real him and told him to stop blaspheming (against himself, technically). wrap your head around that kind of betrayal.