Q: I’m an upbeat, extroverted kind of person, and I’ll confess that Lent is not my favorite season. It’s so sad! And mournful! And gloomy! Isn’t that antithetical to the Christian life? Isn’t being a Christian “good news?” If so, why do we have Lent at all, but, since it’s not likely to go away, can you suggest some ways to get through it? —Morose in Mississippi
A: Your name is quite colorful, but I hope by the end of my letter you might imagine another name for yourself.
Lent was never intended to be sad, mournful and gloomy, to use your words. In fact, I sometimes wonder if getting stuck in that kind of Lent allows to avoid its real calling: introspection and renewal.
Lent is the time God calls us into a deeper relationship, asks us to examine our lives to see where we might become more faithful, beckons us to a life of service and worship. In earlier times, the Church used Lent as a period for catechumens to prepare for baptism at the Easter Vigil. This was a season of learning what it means to be disciples of Jesus and to equip ourselves to follow him.
Even for those of us who have been Christians for a long time, the forty days of Lent invite us to take time regularly to examine our lives, to recommit ourselves to prayer, to listen to God’s call in our lives. The number forty has great significance in the biblical narrative: the children of Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness, Noah and the animals lived in the ark while it rained for forty days, Jesus faced temptations in the wilderness for forty days. All these have to do with testing, with examination.
Those words—testing and examination—sound pretty unappealing, probably because we associate them with getting caught and punished. While that might be true in some places, it is not true in the Reign of God. No, in this instance, examination is the chance to assess our relationship with God, thereby opening ourselves to deeper wisdom, to growth in our lives of faith, to more service to those in need, a time for worshipping God more sincerely and faithfully.
The music of Lent is especially conducive to the kind of journey described above. Throughout the centuries, poets and composers have felt inspired to write rich words and music for Lent, because the season calls upon us to look at our deepest selves and to offer that part of ourselves to God. This spiritual journey has led artists to create works of surpassing beauty. Ask any musician to name some favorite compositions, and you’re likely to hear several Lenten titles.
Getting stuck in sadness during Lent is a trap. It prevents us from moving forward in grace to a renewed relationship. I understand that your 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a prayer that addresses this tendency to get stuck in sadness: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” Of course, we are called to repentance, but God calls us to repentance so that we can be pardoned and get on with our lives in a renewed way. I find that there’s a kind of pride in me that causes me to repent continuously without ever accepting God’s graceful pardon. Staying in the mode of confession, refusing forgiveness renders us pretty useless to God or anyone else.
I thought that life in my day was busy, frantic and unfocused, but then I heard about the hectic lives you live in the 21st century! Your schedules are so crammed full of work and entertainment that it’s no wonder you feel nervous and exhausted. Was it John Greenleaf Whittier who described God’s “still, small voice of calm” that leads to “coolness and. . .balm?” Lent makes that claim on our lives: “Slow down, be quiet, listen. You might hear God speak.”
No, it’s not sadness that’s the aim of Lent, but joy. There’s a new hymn that appeared in your Episcopal Hymnal 1982 that you might enjoy reading and singing. It’s called “Now quit your care,” and it speaks of our need to move past the false notion that God wants us to remain dejected in Lent. I’ve excerpted the first stanza below as a teaser. You might find that it leads you to observe a new kind of Lent: one that calls you into deeper communion of God that actually leads you not to sadness but instead to greater joy in your life
Now quit your care
And anxious fear and worry;
For schemes are vain
And fretting brings no gain.
Lent calls to prayer,
To trust and dedication;
God brings new beauty nigh:
Reply with love to love most high. —Percy Dearmer