Lent is a forty day time of preparation in the Christian faith in which one is to prepare for the celebration of Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday in which one remembers one’s brokenness and pledges to do better. Generally, folks have a tendency to “give something up” for Lent. Usually, this involves stopping doing something you shouldn’t be doing anyway, like drinking too much, swearing, or watching too much TV. Or for me recently, arguing with fundamentalists!
Prior to D Day, Ash Wednesday, one is given a last chance, a final fling to get in some good sinning. It’s called Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The time of festival is extended in such exotic places but is intensified on the Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday, Fat Tuesday, named thus for obvious reasons. Now, down in New Orleans and places I used to travel to in the Caribbean, the time is called Carnival which can be for weeks. Key thought: live in a place that has Carnival, even if you are South of God and don’t observe Lent.
As a South of God, Southern Baptist convert, I love everything about Lent. I love being honest about my sins, even admitting it in confession to a priest, and then intentionally attempting to better my self. I love the season as it is preparing for the central feast day for Christians, Easter. It brilliantly coincides with the new birth of nature after the long winter’s nap of cold. It’s almost as if someone planned it that way. Literally, at the end of Lent, nature is announcing the birth of new life, which renews hope, and God knows, I need it.
Forty days of discipline, leading up to Easter and the Festival of celebration. I came to know Fiesta when I was visiting in San Antonio one year. It was magical with the flowering of the front lawn of the Alamo, by whites, blacks, and Hispanics, all celebrating our common life. It was beautiful. Note to self: live in a place that celebrates Fiesta.
So if you are taking notes, live in a place with an extended Carnival season, enter into Lent with intentionality, and then follow the forty days with an extended Fiesta season! Not a bad way to live. It’s called rhythm, seasons, and joy.
I recently came across a movie, Chocolat, which is set in a small French village. The story centers on the town people who are entering into a time of Lent, and their harsh leader is seen admonishing people to be better people, which in his view mean being more under control. The young priest in this town under the spell and influence of this controlling community leader who orders him to speak tersely from the pulpit to the people in worship, chiding them for their bad behavior and lack of discipline.
Two things happen as the North wind of change blows through the town. First, a woman, who is a chocolatier, opens a shop that produces amazing candies that give pleasure to the people. You can almost taste the luscious chocolate as she stirs her magical mixture, and pours the sweet concoction into molds. The town leader will not go into the place of temptation and presses the priest to preach against such temptations like chocolate.
The second thing is that a band of floating gypsies arrive on a barge, landing on the banks of the town, playing music, dancing, and having entirely way too much fun. The town leader issues a proclamation to stay away from such unclean people that are unlike the upstanding citizens. Such outsiders will corrupt the good people of the town. By the way, the head gypsy is played superbly by Johnny Depp who also plays flamingo guitar as rhapsodically as Django.
Lent is the setting as town people are trying hard to be, as we say in the South, “to be on their best behavior”. The drama is the struggle between the leader’s admonition to be “good” and their desire to enjoy life. Sort of Dirty Dancing gone Provance.
I encourage you to invest the time to watch the movie, and will not spoil the story for you. But the poignant moment that grabbed me came on Easter Sunday when a liberated priest offers these words in his extemporaneous sermon, freed from the strictures of the town leader:
“I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do- by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”
That is the way I look at this season and why I offer you the admonition to have a Happy Lent!
I have enjoyed promoting Lent to folks who never experienced it. Whether or not you are a long time Catholic, experienced in such things, a hardshell South of God Baptist, or a person who is a searcher, I encourage you to consider this time coming up next week called Lent.
It is a time for self-examination and tuning up, or “turning up” your spiritual life. It is something I look forward to rather than dread or fear. I think of it as an internal spring cleaning, as I look around in the corners of my life to see what needs cleaning, a fresh dusting off of cobwebs, or a cleansing wash.
It won’t surprise you that I approach this with some journaling, that is, some thoughtful wrting down on paper what is going inside my soul. I have outlined my method of keeping a journal in past articles, so I won’t rehearse it here. Simply, set aside some time each day to write about what is going on with you. Your hopes, your fears, the things or people that trouble you, the things or people for whom you are grateful. Anything is fair game as long as it matters to you.
I encourage you to begin with a time of silence. My son, who is a musician, shared with me his method of mindfulness, or meditation. Both his and my method is quite simple: focus on breathing, inhale, exhale, allowing the rhythm to settle, to center your self. This can be for a few seconds, five minutes, or twenty. This sets the mood.
Then, record on paper your thoughts, sometimes those things that arise spontaneously from your unconscious, sometimes focused on a particular topic, at times recording an event or describing an experience. I always put a date, time of day, and place so that I can “place” myself when I look back on it next week, or years from now.
I recently reviewed some journaling I did in the late 80s, when I was at the Cathedral, and then some journal entries from the 90s during my Texas sojourn. I was impressed by the presence of some perennial issues that seem to return, again and again. And, I find myself smiling at those very issues, as if they are old friends, returning for a visit, to be dealt with again, in a new setting. My past insights are helpful as I wrestle afresh with these dilemmas that arise. I guess they call that wisdom, or at least I will risk it.
And some of the journaling from the past give me some confidence, may I say “trust”, in my ability to make it through some dark nights of the soul that I once saw as insurmountable. I now see those mountains and valleys in the rear view mirror of my life and can see how it was just part of the journey. This is why I commend keeping a journal with time notations to allow you to look back and to engage in that distinctive human gift of reflecting.
I tend to conclude my journaling by reading a poem, a Psalm like Psalm 139, and close with a few seconds of silence. No big deal. No symphonic display. Simple. And you can and will find your own style that is distinctive to you. Just give it a shot in the Forty Days of Lent.
Lent formally begins on Ash Wednesday, this year, Wednesday, February 26th. But you can start it later if your miss the exact date.
I encourage you to read the Ash Wednesday service if you can’t get to a congregational service near you. There will probably be some online services if you want. You can read it for yourself, beginning on page 264 in the Book of Common Prayer. By the way, you can google the BCP online if you don’t have the hard copy at hand.
I do, however, urge you to go to the real thing, an Ash Wednesday service near you. The actual gathering of other human being, along with the tactile experience of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is powerful. Most churches offer a couple of offerings at various times. Some will be sparse, featuring silence; others will use music to set a mood. The special thing about a formal liturgy is the imposition of ashes.
“Imposition” is the right word, as the ashes remind us of our mortality. The priest will offer daunting words as he/she places ashes in the form of a cross on your forehead: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
That is sort of a rude slap in the face, rather than a platitudinous affirmation. You are going to die, something we work our ass off most of the time denying. It’s a literal re-minder of who we are. Mortal. Destined to die.
And yet, we share the story of the Christ, who lived in a way that is eternal. And we are re-minded to get about that work in the everyday living that we are about. Lent is a time of attending to that intention, that purpose that gives our days and lives a profound meaning, both in our reflective memory, in our present now moment, and as we lean into the unknown future.
In the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, there is a solemn moment when the priest formally invites you to keep a Holy Lent. If you don’t get to a live, flesh and blood, ash on your forehead service on Wednesday, let me be the one who invites you to keep and observe the spiritual discipline of Lent.
It is a time of self examination. Of changing some of your habits by eliminating that which hurts you, holds you back, but also adding some habits that bring you joy and peace. Lent leads you to a celebration of the depth of life that celebrates the hope of new life that is celebrated on Easter.
And so, I invite you to a happy Lent. What do you say?