Tag Archives: Lent

March Madness

When we moved to Mount Desert Island (in the month of May), a local friend told us, “Start watching the police beat in the Islander in March.  That’s when it starts getting weird around here.”  True to form, March newspapers in the past few years have included: a story of “shovel rage” – a local resident moved to throw snow at a town truck and strike it with his shovel in frustration that the sidewalks were not being cleared quickly enough (no damage was reported, and no arrests were made); a report of a man calling police from the maintenance shed at a golf course, claiming that he was being chased (there was onbly one set of footprints in the snow); a motorist slamming on his brakes because the car behind him was following too close, causing a rear-end collision and damage to both cars; a resident calling police to say that someone had been rude to her over the phone; and a report of a woman walking down Main Street in her underwear.  One of my favorite recent local-interest items, the disappearance of a tub of scallop gonads from a car at the Somesville One Stop, actually occurred in November, but in a nice bit of symmetry, made it onto Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” in March of 2013.

Of course, many of the reports in the police beat are not funny at all.  I can’t quote statistics, but it seems as though calls for domestic assault, OUI and other drug and alcohol-related crimes are high in late winter – or maybe it’s just that it’s not obnoxious tourists getting drunk in hotel parking lots, but our own folks getting into trouble near to home.  It’s no secret that winters here are long and dark, and that cabin fever is a real danger.  When Cap’n Nemo’s in Bass Harbor burned down in a few years ago, a thoughtful local reminded me to be on the watch for domestic disputes, as the folks who had previously found their social outlet at the neighborhood bar would now have to spend time in small houses with their spouses and children.

For many folks, March is also the time when the money put aside from summer jobs starts to run thin:  the oil tank is empty, the refrigerator is empty, the rent is due, the light bill is due, and there is no paycheck on the horizon until May or June.  In the best years, there is no margin for error for those who rely on a seasonal economy, and in years with long, cold winters, there is little hope of making the summer money stretch far enough.  Both Island pantries have unfortunately become regular parts of the winter economy, and I can vouch that requests for assistance from the clergy discretionary funds peak in the late winter.

March is when it starts getting weird (or perhaps weirder).  But today, most of us have some sort of shelter, some source of heat and light, and some opportunity to get out of the house occasionally.  Imagine life in northern Europe in the Dark Ages, when many folks lived in one-room huts, heated with a wood or peat fire.  Only the wealthy could afford glass for windows or candles for light.  Food was stockpiled in the fall, with no effective means to preserve it.  In this setting, winter is not just depressing and stressful; it is actually life-threatening.

The days start to get a little longer after Christmas and the midwinter solstice, but not nearly fast enough.  Spring is months away, and any sort of harvest well beyond that.  Late winter is a season when time seems to slow down, when death seems to be all around, and it’s hard to remember that new life will ever be possible.  A time when we count the days until we can crawl out of our winter cocoons, our stagnant little tombs, and celebrate resurrection and the triumph over death’s finality.

The Christian tradition of Lent, of counting off the forty lengthening days before Easter, recognizes the reality that rebirth doesn’t come without death, that new life doesn’t always come when we are ready for it.  March would be easier if we could spend it under a sunlamp, or if we just sang happy songs and ate lots of chocolate.  Lent would be easier if we could just jump straight to Easter.  Many of us can afford to head south in March to someplace where the sun shines and the earth isn’t a bog of frozen mud.  Some of us can afford to heat our houses to 73 and leave all the lights on.  We can afford to create the illusion that winter has no hold on us, that death has no hold on us.

Those of us who spend Lent counting the days until the resurrection know that it is actually death’s hold that is the illusion.  Resurrection life doesn’t necessarily come when we want it.  But it comes.

An invitation to an above-average Lent

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.