Late October is a time of colorful festivals around the world. Some mark the harvest, others are festivals of lights. Now, and in the coming weeks, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and Yoruba are celebrating different holidays, explained here and shown in the photo essay below.
I like to call Ramadan a personal spiritual boot camp. One not only fasts but also prays more, is more careful of one’s interactions with others, tries to exhibit more patience and love. The hunger and thirst — even the overall sense of exhaustion one feels by the end of each day — is a fuel that pushes a Muslim to do better, to fight the internal impulses towards negativity and sin, and to become a better person. Is that possible without fasting? Maybe. But with fasting it is definitely probable. By the end of the 30 days of Ramadan, one feels invigorated, nearer to God, and somehow optimistic.
What if the hardest thing in my spiritual life is to accept the abundant life that Jesus promises? What if the biggest challenge, for some of us who struggle with the sins of self-loathing and shame, is to receive love and to feel joy? Could—should— penitence look different? Might it mean wallowing less and embracing more?
Without his community of his sisters and family, who have been mourning his death and questioning God for not saving their brother and friend, Lazarus would remain entombed. Without community, we remain bound and entombed. I’m not saying that our actions are as great as Jesus raising someone from the dead. But I am saying that God entrusts us with living into community, so that we may welcome our brothers and sisters out of death and into life.
Here is what Pope Francis said to the world in his Lenten message:
“Indifference to our neighbor and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.”
Instead of giving up chocolate or alcohol for Lent, the pope seems to want us to give up our indifference to others.
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Every year on Ash Wednesday, I seek out some member of the clergy to say those words to me. They come from the curse of mankind in Genesis 3, but I find blessing in hearing them in the tale of the loving purposes of God.
Seeing Bartholomew and Mary’s trust in the risen Christ made me want to raise my hands and trust him with all of my hopes. If Christ could master death, what limits could there be to what he could do with them?
Seeing the gracious way in which Jesus shows Thomas his wounds, provides fish for his followers, and restores Peter made me remember all the ways he’s lovingly cared for me. He’s not just a vague myth or a good idea — he’s alive.
Pope Francis is taking direct aim at the wealthy and powerful of the world, saying in his message for Lent that they are often “slaves to sin” who, if they ignore the poor, “will end up condemning themselves and plunging into the eternal abyss of solitude which is hell.”
“The greater their power and wealth, the more this blindness and deception can grow,” the pontiff wrote in his annual Lenten exhortation, which was released on Jan. 26.
LENT IS A GIFT. It is a hard scrub brush for when we’re covered with grime that won’t come off in an ordinary bath.
Lent is popularly associated with “giving up” things. This giving up is easy to lampoon. When I gave up meat once, a friend said, “If you want to go on a diet, don’t pretend you’re doing it for Jesus.” Lent is a remarkably ineffective season for weight loss. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, so Sundays aren’t technically days of Lent. On Sundays you can indulge as much as you want. It’s not the best diet plan. But it does remind us that resurrection crowns every week and so every fast.
Lent is our minor participation in Jesus’ 40-day fast, which is itself a participation in Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. It’s meant to be hard (a friend who loves to fast says he gives up fasting for Lent!). In Lent we say “no” to just a few of our desires. This is counter-cultural in a Western world bent on saying “yes!” to every consumerist desire, however bizarre. But these little “no’s” are really geared to help us say “yes” to Jesus more. It might hurt at first, especially if we’re not used to it, like every good habit. And in the gospel’s strange economy, saying no is the way to life.
A Face Alight
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12- 4:2; Luke 9:28-43a
YOU'VE SEEN FACES shine before. Think of the radiant pregnant woman. Think of a speaker or an athlete or a dancer in a groove, performing like few can. Think of those few moments in life so magical you can’t stop smiling.
Moses’ face shines so brightly his fellow Jews ask him to cover it. He’s in the presence of a light so incandescent it has been known to kill people. Moses’ face is like the light of the moon—a reflection of a greater light on which we cannot look directly.
If Moses’ face shines, Jesus’ whole body shines. So does the mountaintop all around. Moses turns up to join in the shine, along with Elijah, and they discuss the “departure” or “exodus” (Luke 9:31) that Jesus will soon accomplish at Jerusalem.
Few people in my life would likely make the mistake of characterizing me as a naturally disciplined or pious person. Zealous, maybe. Pious, no. I’ve tended to live life in a passionate pursuit of a particular direction only to stumble, fall, get back up, and run a different way (not necessarily opposite, just different).
Thus, it has been an interesting experience for me this Lent to spend time reading, writing, and reflecting on discipline and ascetic practices. This stumbling and turning has often felt like an aimless back and forth, but in these weeks of reflection, it has been encouraging to look back and see growth. While the back and forth has been real, what has seemed like “just meanderings” have turned out to have some forward direction.
Father Richard Rohr gives this encouragement, “The steps to maturity are, by their very nature, immature.”
As we look back, each step behind us is going to seem immature, maybe even like a mistake. Hitting our head and saying “God, I was such an idiot back then,” is evidence of grace at work in our lives. The ability to see the ways we failed that were invisible to us at the time, is a sign of our growth in wisdom and discernment. This is often hard for me to accept.
CEO of World Vision Australia Rev. Tim Costello reminds us that the Lord's Prayer "is not about us."
"This Easter we remember that Christianity is in some ways about the power of weakness — a man on a cross ... exposing the weakness of violent power. This rather is extraordinary power defined in love," he says.
All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.
At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.
The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."
“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.
We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.
Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.
Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.
As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.
I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."
If you listen, each bucket has its own special sound. First are the empty buckets and their muted ting of dripping sap falling straight to the galvanized steel bottom. Next is the dop that reverberates from the slightly sweet drop running off the spile to a thin layer of liquid below. But it is the soft, and all too rare and timeless plop that I wait for. That quiet plop (or sometimes plip) signals that over half of that the three-gallon bucket is full and the tap is giving in abundance.
There is a slight quickening of the heart when the bucket is heavy enough to need two hands to pull off the hook. Then an involuntary smile to hear the pitch of the shwoosh ascend as the smaller bucket presents it’s offering to the larger. But sometimes, before I touch the bucket at all, I stop and wait to hear what it has to say. Ting? Dop? Plip? Plop?
I look at the tree and then its neighbors. I strain to hear the rhythm of the buckets around me and wonder, what makes one tap run so well when others are nearly dry?
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Paul says that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
I can think of many times when I’ve felt foolish. Like forgetting someone’s name, or worse, calling them by the wrong name. Or when I read The Life of Pi and thought it was based on a true story because of the voice of the journalist.
The times when being foolish has really hurt, though, were when I placed trust in people only to be let down.
In this Lent reflection, Grant and Uncle Graham Paulson talk about cultural genocide and forgiveness in the same breath. It is an honor to listen to someone who is possible of such a witness.
Lent is a season of preparation. But the process of preparing for Easter does not need to be all negative commitments and focused on the things we don’t do.
One opportunity for developing new positive practices during Lent involves learning to see. The Gospels recount at least three different instances after the resurrection in which followers of Jesus were not able to recognize or “see” him: Mary at the tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, the road to Emmaus, and the delayed reaction when Jesus gave great fishing advice.
The truth of Easter is not always readily apparent. It requires the ability to see clearly. This means rubbing our eyes, clearing them of gunk, and focusing our vision.
Having recently shifted from spending most of my day in an office to spending almost all of it outside, I’ve been ruminating on what it might mean to practice seeing the non-human or natural world more clearly. Here are my initial reflections:
Have you ever been moved by a sunset? A star-filled canopy of the night sky? A canyon-filled horizon? A towering wooded cathedral?
What was the feeling? Gratitude for the beauty? Humility in the midst of grandeur? Inspired to greatness while experiencing greatness? Joy in celebration of it all?
Lent is our season of honesty. It is a time when we may break out of our illusions to face the reality of our life in preparation for Easter, a radical new beginning.
When, through this illusion-breaking homework, we connect with reality, we see that in our society the fabric of human community is almost totally broken. One glaring evidence of such brokenness is the current unrelieved tension between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri.
That tension is rooted in very old racism. It also reflects the deep and growing gap between “the ownership class” that employs the police and those who have no serious access to ownership who become victims of legalized violence.
This is one frontal manifestation of “the covenant that they broke,” as referred to in the Jeremiah text for this week: a refusal of neighborly solidarity that leads, with seeming certitude, to disastrous social consequences.
Of course the issue is not limited to Ferguson but is massively systemic in U.S. society. The brokenness consists not so much in the actual street violence perpetrated in that unequal contest. The brokenness is that such brutalizing force is accepted as conventional, necessary, and routine. It is a policy and a practice of violence acted out as “ordinary” that indicates a complete failure of neighborly imagination.
Lent is a time for honesty that may disrupt the illusion of well-being that is fostered by the advocates of indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism that disregards the facts on the ground. Against such ideological self-sufficiency, the prophetic tradition speaks of the brokenness of the covenant that makes healthy life possible.
As long as there is denial and illusion, nothing genuinely new can happen. But when reality is faced — in this case the reality of a failed covenant between legal power and vulnerable citizens — new possibility becomes imaginable.
At the heart of the Lenten season is an interesting paradox.
Lent is not observed in the making of Lenten commitments, but you can’t actually observe Lent without making a commitment.
Elsewhere at Sojourners, Jarrod McKenna reminds us that Lent is not ultimately about “giving up stuff” but about “the preparation of our hearts for what God has done in Christ.” Adam Ericksen encourages us that, “The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial.”
To both these points and posts I say, amen.
But as a lifelong Protestant who recently returned from spending time with Benedictine monks and nuns in New Mexico, I’ve come back with some evolving perspectives on fasting and other ascetic practices from the Catholic tradition. This isn’t in contradiction to either of these authors’ perspectives but more of a summation of my recent convictions as someone who has tended to skip the Lenten fasts altogether.
Here is what has struck me. I do not believe most Western Christians today are so focused on giving up their creature comforts for Lent that they are in danger of making their faith dependent upon physical fasting. Maybe I’m generalizing too much. So I’ll make this statement more personal:
My greatest struggle has not been that I have been so committed to “giving up stuff” for Lent that I have forgotten that God’s grace is unconditional. Rather, I have tended to avoid the discomfort of giving up my daily habits and physical dependencies by using a vague sense of “inner attitudes” of preparation as an excuse. As a result, I believe I’ve been missing some real opportunities to be receptive to God’s grace.
There are few reasons I believe this to be so important.
All too often, Lent is about ‘my’ personal journey to the cross:
I’m giving up…
My Lenten discipline is…
During Lent, I’m trying to….
During Lent, I’m fasting from...
But Psalm 107 will have none of that “me, my, and I.”
Even when we make attempts to live beyond this presumption of self, we still land all too often in our own backyard. Instead of giving up chocolate, we add compassion ... on my terms. Instead of detoxing from coffee, we add a spoonful of caring ... when we have the time. Instead of abstinence from alcohol, we try — as Pope Francis encourages — to “fast from indifference.”
As much as these invite us to reconsider our hearts, at the end of the day these are still “our” hearts.
Psalm 107 nudges us from our backyards to imagine the hearts and lives of those in transit: the refugee, the wayfarer, the pilgrim, the immigrant, the sojourner, the alien, the wanderer — all of those en route to the cross from the four compass points of the north, the south, the east and the west.
The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that every 4 seconds someone is forced to flee. Whether along the border of Mexico, in Syria, the South Sudan, or the Ukraine — this statistic is staggering. Psalm 107 asks us this Lent to remember those in transit — in all their fear, their grief, their suffering — and to pray to the Lord to save them from their distress, and to trust in the Lord who will lead them from places of stress and violence toward a story of redemption and liberation.
This Lent, Psalm 107 begs us to remember those in transit. Whether it’s the 4.3 million “removable aliens” from America who wait a Texas judge’s decision after rising to Obama’s referendum of hope, or the Jews in Europe packing their bags toward a mass exodus to Jerusalem in fear of persecution, or whether it’s the sojourners at the Holding Institute in Laredo, Texas comforting an exhausted child, or Syrian Christians finding refuge for their dying mother or dehydrated newborn — these pilgrims from north and south and east and west must journey along with us this Lent.