On Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, one of his long-running schticks was the moral superiority of places that suffer through long, cold winters. Keillor never missed an opportunity to disparage southern California and other places that “don’t have seasons,” and his “News from Lake Wobegon” tended to judge those who spend winters in Florida or Arizona as slightly suspect. Winter builds character, according to this thinking, and avoiding it shows a lack of moral fiber.
The church year has its own seasons, and some traditions seem to treat Lent like February in Maine: something one chooses to suffer through, with the vague sense that the suffering itself is what makes it good for you. Of course, the winters we have nowadays are nothing like what we had back when I was a kid, and neither is Lent. Back then, we knew something about penitence!
Confession, repentance and penitence are all worthwhile things, but they are not all that Lent is about. Lent began in the early Church as a period of preparation before the great celebration of Easter; those who hoped to be baptized and join the church at the Great Vigil spent (at least) forty days in study, prayer, fasting, and self-examination. Remember that the church in those days was persecuted or illegal in many places, so that one needed to think long and hard before taking the fateful step of presenting oneself for baptism. Remember also that the unbaptized left the room after the scripture readings and prayers: Holy Communion was a mystery only for those who had shown a serious commitment to follow Christ.
As Christianity became the established religion of the Empire, baptism became much more ubiquitous, and preparation for it less arduous. As time went on, however, an increased focus in the Western Church on human sinfulness led to a more mechanistic economy of sin. Penitence, the honest acknowledgement and turning away from one’s sin, was replaced by Penance, self-inflicted punishment in exchange for the church’s promise of absolution. Lent became a time of sometimes morbid self-mortification, on the assumption that God desires and approves of our suffering: that suffering, like cold winters, builds character.
In reaction against this sort of masochism, some Christian traditions have abandoned Lent altogether, or have reduced it to little more than the switching of green hangings for purple. But just as Garrison Keillor finds something unwholesome about year-round sunshine, I think there is something missing from a church year that doesn’t include a season of study, prayer, fasting (in whatever form it takes), and self-examination. Identifying oneself as a Christian is perhaps not as risky as it was in the second century, but we still need to think long and hard about what it means to live out that commitment.
Fasting, like penitence, can become a parody of itself when we focus exclusively on what we’re “giving up for Lent.” Perhaps a healthier way of thinking about Lent is as a time to examine our lives for those habits and behaviors that come between us and God; those idols that demand the time and energy that could be better spent on our relationship with God and with God’s people in the world. Seen this way, Lent is less about giving something up or improving ourselves, and more about making time and space for God in our lives. It is about stewardship of our time, energy and attention.
Idols don’t have to be evil things in and of themselves; even good things can become idols if they come between us and God. For example, we may load up our leisure time with so many enriching activities and worthwhile causes that we “just don’t have time” for daily prayer and meditation. We may be so frugal and self-denying that we find ourselves anxious about finances and resenting the pledge we made to the church in faith. Or we may notice that lots of time calling out injustices on social media can feed the demons of hatred and fear, alienating us from our brothers and sisters and making us forget the love that creates justice. Turning away from these habits is not about making ourselves miserable – it’s about making room in our lives for the real joy that comes from relationship with God.
And let us not forget genuine penitence! I would remind you that the Rite of Reconciliation (sacramental confession and absolution) can be a restorative, liberating practice. The two forms that begin on page 447 in our current Prayer Book are intended as a framework and a first step in a process of repentance, not as an act of self-abasement and penance. This ministry is always available by appointment, but Lent is a particularly appropriate time to lay aside those things that trouble us as we prepare to meet our risen Lord at Easter.