|Ash Wednesday - Carl Spitzweg|
So, probably those who have read this blog are not at all surprised to read that I love Lent. Other than Advent, it's really my favorite liturgical season of year.
One of the best things about Lent is that you don't have to belong to a church to observe Lent. In fact, I'm going to be so bold as to say that sometimes, it's better if you don't.
The image the church holds out of Lent is, for me, captured in that Carl Spitzweg portrait above.
Entitled "Ash Wednesday." It depicts a jester - the symbol of frivolity and foolishness - sitting in what may well be a prison cell. He's utterly alone, seemingly lost in deep contemplation - accompanied only by a shaft of light with a pitcher of water nearby.
The symbolism of light and water are inescapable as an antidote to his miserable condition.
To be honest, I really think that misses the point of Lent. It's really not about doom and gloom, sin and confession, suffering and sacrifice.
It's about taking time - a most precious commodity in life - to contemplate not about things "high and holy" but about what it means to be mortal - a human being. About how one might be a better human being. About how that human might make the world a better place.
That's a very counter-cultural thing to do. To take time - to be intentional about it - to think about being human. Our culture, our society, does not encourage this. Indeed, in many ways our culture offers lots of ways to anesthetize and isolate oneself.
Neither does the church, in fact, do so good a job of Lent - even though it created it. The Church means well. But, the Church often encourages us to strive to be saints. Which, of course, doesn't happen until after you die.
Lent is about setting apart a time certain - 40 days and 40 nights - to do as Jesus did, right after his baptism: to think about what it means to be human and what God was calling him to do with the divine gift of this human life.
In the Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent, Jesus goes into "the wilderness" where he is tempted by Satan in the three circumstances when humans are most sorely tempted.
Because we are human, we experience physical and emotional and spiritual hunger or gluttony, power or impotence, and human conditions of humility and arrogance.
Lent is about taking the time to be intentional about what feeds us and what depletes us.
It's about exploring the boundaries of excess and deprival.
Lent is also about taking the time to be intentional about sources and systems of power and authority. It's about discovering our unique gifts and resources and how we use them - or don't, or abuse them - and why.
Finally, Lent is about taking the time to be intentional about you. Your identity. Who you are. Whose you are. What you value. What you are willing to die for. What makes life worth living. What you are called to do with your life. What your relationship is to other people, the world, and the One who gave you life.
It's about exploring the limits of your life and taking the time to learn how to make the most of the time you have to be the best you can be and make the world a better place.
You don't have to be part of a church to observe Lent. In fact, the church can get in the way of a good, albeit "holy" observance of Lent, concentrating more on sin and sacrifice and penitence than the wholeness - and holiness - of human life.
Fasting and sacrifice and practicing piety and humility are all good - if practicing those things help you be intentional on the hunger of your body, mind and spirit. If it makes you a better person. If it helps you, throughout the rest of the year, work to make the world a better place.
But, if it tries to make you someone you don't even remotely recognize - if it's not authentic and has no integrity - well, what's the point? You are just going through the motions.
As Leo Buscaglia once said, "If you are a banana, don't put your energies into trying to be an apple. Be the best banana you can possibly be, blemishes and all."
Indeed, I don't believe you have to be Christian to observe Lent. However, my experience is that following Jesus as your teacher and guide can make that journey more meaningful. Not necessarily easier but more deeply transformative. Well, that's my experience, anyway.
At his best, Jesus can teach you about 'metanoia' - about stopping what you're doing - right dead in your tracks - so that you may turn around and find another way - another path - that will lead you to wholeness and holiness of life.
Lent only happens once a year - well, on the church calendar - but I'm of the opinion that it ought to happen at least periodically throughout all of the days of our lives.
Sound too esoteric? Too exotic?
Like you'd have to travel to a foreign country and pay lots of money to a Spiritual Guide and walk a hundred miles on your knees, chanting a spiritual mantra in exactly the right way?
Well, one day when you've got some time - or are of a mind to take some time - take a peak at the 12-Steps of Recovery.
You don't have to be an alcoholic or addicted to some substance to find that those steps will place you on a path to living an effective and deeply spiritual model of living Lent every day of your life.
Living a Lenten Life will put us in direct conflict with the world - and parts of the church - that beckon us to anesthetize and isolate ourselves, but as Socrates famously said at his trial for "impiety and corrupting youth " for which he was subsequently sentenced to death,
May this Lent be for you so w/holy, so meaning-full, so in-tentional, that you will be inspired throughout the year to make several journeys into the wildernesses of your own humanity, that you may be tempted to discover there the boundaries of your needs and excesses, your human frailty as well as your strengths - what makes life so worth living that you are willing to die for it - as well as your relationship with yourself, your neighbor, the world and God.
I hope you will come to love, Lent, too.