My bookshelf represents a poverty of influence. So for Lent, we — two white middle-class millennial women — decided to fast from white voices and white-dominated media. For 40 days, we’re committing to only read books, watch films, and listen to podcasts written or directed by women of color.
Pope Francis, leading Catholics into the season of Lent, urged people on Wednesday to slow down amid the noise, haste, and desire for instant gratification in a high-tech world to rediscover the power of silence.
“What are we going to do — put this out under the theme, ‘I love you; I’m sorry’?” he said he joked with church members. “But the more I thought about it the more I thought sometimes when something is odd or uncomfortable the best thing to do is to lean into the discomfort.”
“They’re amazed how little these people realize that satire can be a form of violence that hurts them, their spirituality, their view of God and the way they pray,” he said.
On the surface, the confluence of Valentines and ashes seems to produce an odd and uncomfortable couple, but it’s fitting to have one day of celebrating love in all its forms while also recognizing our mortality.
Love and dust? There’s no better pairing.
THIS MONTH SEES several liturgical transitions. Epiphany, the season of light and revelation, comes to a close. Jesus’ transfiguration is its own epiphany. The church enters the season of Lent, beginning with a focus on human frailty and failure—and for many people an evening (or week) of indulgence in things that bring joy, pleasure, and sweetness. The light is still there, but we are peering more intently at the shadows.
The opening prayer for Ash Wednesday in The Book of Common Prayer begins, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” The readings for the first week present the God whose power and splendor in creation is only matched by her care for her children. The radiance of the transfiguration also shines a light on the ways in which we are not like Jesus, yet he chooses to leave the mount of illumination and return to the world that needs his light. The readings for the third week attend to the world God has made, calling us to care for it in partnership with God. And on the final Sunday, Jesus teaches about his death and resurrection, the greatest transition in the scriptures.
Can Christians observe Lent in a way that ties social justice consciousness to spiritual Lenten practices of repentance, resistance, and solidarity? The curators of four social media campaigns — #LentenLament, #LentLite, #EmbodiedSolidarity, and #DetoxifyChristianity — are exploring what this looks like in public. “What does it mean to come together, to lock arms together, to really just stand in the gap for people?” Alicia Crosby, executive director of the Center for Inclusivity and co-curator of last year’s #EmbodiedSolidarity campaign, asked.
It would be much easier to let the face of the tomb be a scriptural story, so we could talk about terror and grief at arm’s length. But if we strip the story of humanity, we have no recourse but to fall into Christian platitudes that have no resilience in the face of real pain and grief.
I thought about my own will to division — how I was inclined to cut out from my circle of care those who, it seemed to me, had chosen to elect leaders who relish division, scapegoating, dog whistling, and control. I thought about our Buddhist siblings’ reminder that there is no separation between these hatreds — that to choose division myself is to cut out a part of our general body that is central to the compassion and fierce love through which lasting change comes.
For now, me and my people are protected in America. My tears are fortified by fear and outrage as I think of my Catholic cousin and the wonderful woman he married, whose family hails from India and who practices another religion. They and their two beautiful children could be targeted like Srinivas Kuchibhotla — for what? The color of their skin? The worship of their God?
Unplugging from social media or limiting one’s internet use for a set period such as during Lent can be helpful for some individuals. My research, conducted over two decades, however, shows that some core assumptions on which digital fasting is based can be problematic or misguided.
Scripture is rife with paradox. Live by the Spirit but be firmly anchored in the Word. Seek justice but love mercy. Love sacrificially but maintain healthy boundaries. Be gracious with people but hold to the standard of holiness.
We’re telling ourselves, our neighbors, and this country that we care about the everyday lives of the people, that we’re willing to work to protect them. We’re willing to care for the environment when we recycle and dig in the dirt and support our national parks, we’re willing to protest in the streets when we see injustice, and we’re willing to pray in our homes that the resistance-heart and hard-working hands of Jesus bleeds into who we are in every moment of our lives.
If our fasting from food does not compel us to consider and improve the circumstances of those who are hungry and fast involuntarily, then what purpose does it serve? If our abstaining from shopping for clothes does not cause us to consider and provide for the naked, and if our desire to improve our interpersonal relationships doesn’t catalyze our engagement with those on the margins, how does this season of sacrifice serve the building of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?
To adults new to Christian practices of fasting during Lent, the idea can seem facetious — some sort of trendy way of worshipping both Jesus and our own well-defined abs. But for many, fasting has been a way of cleansing not the body but the mind. Temporary self-denial can invite us to compassion for those who are hungry not by choice, to a remembrance of the trials of Jesus, or to better appreciation of food when we do eat. But in the face of a world that already pressures many into self-denial, self-deprivation, and self-harm, the strength of the spiritual discipline of fasting cracks.
THERE IS SOMETHING SPACIOUS about the gospel viewed through the keyhole of repentance. Something to the spare, Spartan spaces that mark a season of penitence. One chapel I know turns its altar so the people can see Jesus’ dying words: “I thirst.” Another adorns its sanctuary with a bare tree, not a leaf on it. The signs are those of severity. We make a hash of this world. We leave it bare. There is no health in us.
Lent says the tree will not always be bare. We will not always be health-less. And Jesus will not always thirst. Augustine of Hippo says Jesus thirsts for those gathered around him—he longs to drink them in, make them part of his body. That is, Jesus’ own murderers, the oblivious passers-by, his fellow convicts (his own disciples are long gone).
Lent is long. If you’re like me or my church, our Lenten devotions have grown a bit tepid by now. These final weeks are good times for renewal. The first weeks of Easter, in the ancient church, were a time when the newly baptized would gather daily to marvel at the wonders of their new faith. So too can we.
It’s been a year of strange happenings, politically and culturally. Our inclination is to lash out. There is plenty of blame to be distributed. Lent asks us to lash in. We are the first at fault, whoever we are. And then to praise. Try though we might, we cannot stop the Lord of life. And neither can anyone else.
Suffering far outlasts any administration, and our commitment to the needs of those suffering must transcend partisanship. One problem with connecting advocacy to partisan political outrage is that often the needs of the people get lost in the desire to “win.” Jesus’s vision of healing a world in pain begins with blessing, not blame, so that we may keep our focus on those in need of comfort.
THIS IS WEIRD, I know, but I miss Lent when it’s over. There is something to what Otis Moss III calls the “blue note preaching” that feels human and humanizing. So much of life is sorrowful. At Lent we can name that sadness explicitly. Don’t get me wrong—Easter is awesome. But as soon as it’s done and the lilies are put away and the crowds diminish, I miss the strong scrubbing brush on our corroded hearts and the promise of God’s unending mercy.
There is a clarity in Lent. Repent! Turn around! Now! This is not at all a negative message. When we repent, we empty ourselves, pour ourselves out, open ourselves up. We are normally so full of self-regard. As a friend of mine says, “I’m always right.” What? “I mean, if I knew something was a lie, I’d stop thinking it.” Donald Trump couldn’t have said it better. The thing is, we all think we’re right all the time. Lent says, “No you’re not. Whoever you are.” Sarah Coakley’s work brilliantly has shown the good news of what scripture calls “kenosis,” self-emptying. This is a dangerous teaching. Women and minorities and people out of power are often abused by being told to make themselves less. Coakley argues that self-emptying in forms such as silent prayer is actually the most empowering thing we can do. Because then God’s Holy Spirit fills us up. Grants us a power we can’t imagine. Makes us fully human.
So repent away, preachers and friends. There is no better piece of good news around.
[ March 5 ]
God Tumbles After Us
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 ; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19, 13-17; Matthew 4:1-11
For many Christians who observe the liturgical season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, an Advent devotional is a beloved companion.
Such devotionals typically include a short Scripture reading and reflection on the birth of Jesus.
But most are “crap,” according to the Rev. Jason Chesnut of Baltimore.