How to Really (Not) Suck at Lent

How to Really (Not) Suck at Lent

I suck at Lent.

I first caught the whiff of Lent’s existence sometime in prepubescence—the exact source of which I’m unable to recall. I didn’t recognize it as a special season on the Christian calendar, a forty-day period of preparing for Easter with focused fasting, praying, and generous giving. I understood it purely as a game to be played, a gimmick by which to be amused, a gauntlet to be picked up in order to impress myself and others and maybe God by temporarily cutting out (cutting back on, TBH) candy and cussing.

Lent was merely a baptized version of seeing how long I could hold my breath underwater before having to kick back up for air, an enchanted Survivor challenge where blistered hands were their own reward. If it proved to be too much of an inconvenience, I bailed—pride intact, though, satisfied from even giving it a go in the first place. This cavalier stance describes my initial interpretation of Lenten “spirituality”: reducing (distorting) it to a dare, a novelty, a mere answer to the flippant question, “What are you giving up?”

In the years to follow, if reminded in time, I tried to participate in Lent—this contorted and truncated shadow version of it, at least. Entire weeks lived without Sour Patch Kids and F-Bombs in exchange for a bit of amusement and boosted self-esteem.

In college, I began celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ in earnest. As most everything shuffled and shifted and took a new shape for me, Lent, too, required a fresh sorting. This time, rather than just lazily reducing it, I wholly rejected it on the grounds that it was a man-made ritual, a hollow and superfluous holiday where religionists superstitiously avoid indulgence in order to curry divine favor. Lent was no longer an endurance event for me to compete in, but an ash-applicated quid pro quo to scorn.

This is because I had all the answers back then. I knew those possessing true faith would forego Lent and instead rest in the freedom and forgiveness already given to them. The stretch of time from Christmas to Easter needn’t be interrupted, and there was no obligation for a special season of repentance and holy living for those practicing such disciplines year-round. The word “Lent” doesn’t appear in the pages of the Bible, after all; it must be a practice for posers and hypocrites.  So I gave up on giving things up.

But not for long. After college, I found myself in a church community that healthily adopted the rhythm of Lent, that received it as a gift. My suspicion of the season slowly dissolved as I learned of its beauty and formative utility as an embodied, symbolic journey with Christ to his death--a time to get our imaginations properly outfitted to handle the dramatic joy of Easter morning. (It didn’t hurt that concurrently I was holed up in a fluorescently-lit dorm room studying theology and discovered Lent’s early church origins, helping allay my misgivings.)

I came around to the idea of Lent. But I wasn’t done making a mess of it. The flippant question evolved into a more calculated one: “How can I kill two birds with one stone?” So I instinctively and half-consciously looked for opportunities to leverage as if that slice of spring wedged between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday was some holy camouflage under which I should sneak an ulterior, self-serving agenda. Like the time was one part worship, one part formation, one part New Year’s resolution: pare back comforts, assume a prayerful posture, but ultimately expect a return on investment, perhaps in the form of a kicked caffeine addiction or svelte obliques. At this stage of my relationship with Lent, I embraced it, but I exploited it, too.  I was still approaching the time on my terms. I was still off balance when Easter arrived.

So now I’m trying something new. Days away from having a priest press dust into my forehead, I’m especially keen on not sucking at Lent. I’ve determined it’s too substantial to reduce, too valuable to reject, too sacred to exploit. I don’t know if I’m capable of getting it all “right,” and I don’t know that I’m called to. But I can give myself over to it. I can welcome it in. I can quit trying to master it and instead allow myself to be mastered by it, simply and hungrily rehearsing its rhythms, confident that somewhere in the Lenten gray I’ll see Christ, who’s already preparing me to better behold the bright shining white of Easter.

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