I had planned a few posts for Lent. But then the days flew by, and here we are past the beginning of Holy Week, almost at the end of the season of Lent, and they have not appeared. However, rather than give up, I have decided to shift them to this last week before Easter, inspired by Alana’s last post to keep trying.
The plan will be to write something each day of Holy Week, starting later today with a make-up post for yesterday, Palm (or Passion) Sunday. But first, here are some opening notes.
After Epiphany, Reprised for Lent
Back in January, during the season after Epiphany, I reflected upon the meanings of the feast of Epiphany, noting that there was no mention of the magi who visited the young Jesus converting from whatever faith they observed. They just went home, presumably continuing in their own religious traditions. I suggested that Epiphany could be an opportunity for Christians to ponder what they might learn from people of different traditions.
It is true that I am definitely not the first person to note the non-conversion of the wise men. No less than the poet T. S. Eliot pointed out as much in his ‘Journey of the Magi’—though he came to a rather different conclusion. Imagining the perspective of one of the magi many years later, Eliot ended the poem with
[…] were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. We had seen birth and death
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
With the return of the magi to their homes and their co-religionists, Eliot pictured not a learning from any other faith tradition, but the defeat and demise of the other. Thus, simply noting the non-conversion of the magi does not necessarily lead to listening with humility and generosity to what the other has to say. The question remains: what, then, might open a closed heart?
This might seem far removed from a season during which Christians prepare for Easter the holiest festival of the Christian faith. But Lent is part of Christianity’s attempt to join the conversation on how to open a closed heart. With forty days of self-questioning and reflection, of penitence and prayer and mindfulness while journeying from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, observing Lent reminds people that transformation takes time. It takes time to learn to trust in God, to put yourself in God’s hands, stretches of waiting and of walking, of confusion and enlightenment, moments both for giving and receiving, for helping and being helped. It takes time to learn to love.
One concrete observance associated with Lent is additional study of Scripture, tradition and theology, as well as extra opportunities to worship. The idea is that a season of being more intentional about trying to understand the rich depths of Christian history and investigating the incredible variety of interpretations which exist will help develop spiritual resources for the whole year. This also serves as an attempt to remind people that study, service and worship all go together. Thus, some churches add midweek worship services for Lent, or have special group studies, and the practice of Lenten meals abounds. Still, much of this depends on both the customs of a congregation and the availability of resources, so practice will vary widely from one Christian community to another. With Presbyterian/Reformed traditions really just rediscovering Lent, this means that Lenten observance is often left to the individual. For me, though a few years I have been in places where there has been more opportunities for communal observance of the season, keeping Lent has mostly meant implementing some kind of discipline myself. Usually I choose a book to read meditatively throughout the forty days and sometimes beyond (as I mentioned a couple of years ago when my Lenten blogging started out more determinedly before withering away).1 But there are many possibilities; for instance, one year I decided to write a poem inspired by every psalm in the Revised Common Lectionary from Ash Wednesday to Easter.2
Personally, I have learned a great deal from the books I read during Lent. Often, just when I am about to despair that there is any good theological writing left in the world, I find a book that inspires and encourages me.3 However, adding reading or study to one’s daily routine is not the most well-known Lenten practice. Far more common is giving something up for the duration of the season. You might hear of people giving up chocolate, beer, television, etc., a somewhat modern version of the much more extensive Christian tradition of fasting for Lent. I don’t usually give up specific things for Lent. (I fasted once, sunrise to sundown every day but Sunday my first year in Scotland, but I forgot to reckon for the fact that, by the time Easter rolls around in Scotland, daylight hours have become really, really long. Fasting was hard.) Not that giving up something cannot be a good spiritual discipline, but that, for me, it ends up with me focusing on the thing I am giving up.
Still, earlier this year, I read an idea that intrigued me. On his blog, back before Epiphany even (I am in awe of some people and their ability to be organised!), a minister colleague suggested thinking about giving up particular attitudes for Lent; this was going to become the basis for his sermons during the season. In the end, the minister chose to go a different route with his Lenten sermons, but his first idea got me thinking. Perhaps Lent would be a good time to focus theologically on those attitudes from which Christian churches should turn away. All over the internet there are Christian bloggers,4 especially those from so-called mainline traditions like Presbyterianism, diagnosing the church’s ills and making suggestions for the future. Numbers are falling, influence diminishing, congregations closing, theology narrowing, finances dwindling—and the future will be bleak unless churches respond to x with y. There are many different interpretations of all of this, and my interpretation is just one more. But Lent is a good time to think about this, a chance to point to possibility, I hope.
My original plan to take up this idea was to post on this weekly throughout Lent. So now it will be daily for Holy Week. At least, I will try.
1. Coincidentally, the book I chose this year is the sequel to the one I mentioned two years ago, as I have read David Jasper’s The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture. (I have no idea what my former PhD supervisor woud say to the idea that his books are perfect for Lent.) ↩
2. For most of Lent, you have plenty of time to do this, with one Psalm per Sunday giving you a week to craft a poem. However, when you reach Holy Week, suddenly there is at least one Psalm each day. The Easter Vigil service alone includes nine Psalms. So far, I have only managed to complete poetry for the Psalms of one year in the Lectionary’s three-year cycle.↩
4. Okay, that may be an exaggeration. All over the internet there are kittens.↩