A year ago, when the pandemic had just arrived, but before we had any idea of what was still to come, a friend described the season as “the lentiest Lent we have ever lented.”
April Herron, my colleague at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, observed that “Lent of 2020 has lasted so long that it has become Lent of 2021.” It sure feels that way.
So here we are again, moving through this most ancient season of the Christian year.
Centuries ago, Lent was born as a period of repentance and reflections for persons looking to be baptized into the faith. Baptism took place on Easter Sunday, so the weeks leading up to that day helped prepare them for the new birth it promised.
Over time, other Christians wanted to take the opportunity to renew their faith as well, and the season of Lent was born. Lent draws inspiration from any number of 40-day periods in the Bible.
During the time of Noah, the heavens rained down for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses spent 40 days up on the mountain of God to receive the commandments. Jonah warned the people of Nineveh they had 40 days to repent of their evil and unjust ways, or the city would be destroyed.
After his own baptism, Jesus spent 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. The Bible seems to favor the number 40 for times of preparation and transition in our lives.
During the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, Christians have observed Lent in a variety of ways over the years. Some have undertaken fasting, particularly of rich foods or alcohol. In recent times some have given up television, movies or social media. Others have chosen to begin healthier personal practices, such as exercise or rest. Some have added other disciplines, such as prayer or Bible study. And some have looked for ways to make an impact in the world around them, volunteering to help people who are struggling.
Any of these can help draw Christians closer to the sacrificial love embodied in the life of Christ.
They can also be used to draw attention to ourselves in an unhealthy way, pointing to a presumed and superior form of holiness. That is one of the potential ironies of this season. Jesus actually spoke of such temptation, encouraging his followers to keep their good deeds even from themselves – “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
He also tells his followers not to disfigure their faces as a public sign of fasting (ashes, anyone?), but “put oil on your head and wash your face.” He seems concerned that those who call themselves Christians will be more concerned about the appearance of their faithfulness than simply living faithfully. Hypocrisy is not an exclusively modern phenomenon.
Lent has been understood as a somber season, a time for the mortification of the flesh, the rejection of earthly desires.
But Lent has another side too, one which is less widely known. It is hidden in the word itself, coming from the Old English word, “lencten.”
Lencten refers to the lengthening of days that happens each spring, as we in the north journey out of the darkness of winter. So while many of us think of Lent in serious and sober terms, at its heart it is a time of anticipation and hope for the renewal of life, not only in ourselves but in the creation around us.
We know we are not out of the woods when it comes to the pandemic. But we can also see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Infection rates are down from levels that threatened to overwhelm our hospitals. Deaths are declining. Vaccines are reaching more and more of us, offering the hope of a return to some of our familiar and cherished activities. We look forward to reunions with loved ones near and far. We are eager to join with one another in community. Spring is on its way.
Last year may have been the longest and lentiest Lent we have ever lented.
But with people of faith over the ages, we live in hope. In the words of Psalm 30, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” A blessed, and even happy, Lent to all.
Jonathan Chute is senior pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church. Jonathan can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org