Here we are once again, in the season of Lent.
The rhythms of the liturgical calendar sometimes complement those of secular or natural calendars, but sometimes they’re at odds. Some years, Lent begins in midwinter and the journey toward the cross feels all too appropriate while snow and ice and wind rage outside. At other times – and in other parts of the world – the weather and seasons are out of sync as mild, sunny days and flowering bulbs seem to contradict the weekly scriptural testimony that the path of discipleship requires traveling through the valley of the shadow before we can experience the barely-hoped-for good news of Resurrection.
And of course, the seasons of our own lives as individuals or as congregations may be similarly compatible or incongruous with the cycles of the lectionary and church calendar. Last year, I entered Lent having just left a beloved local church ministry position, and the sense of wandering in the wilderness underscored my own search for a new spiritual home in powerful, sometimes heartbreaking ways that allowed me to grieve deeply and wait for healing. This year, I find myself waiting and preparing for new life in an entirely different way: I am now two days past due to give birth to a daughter, my husband and my much-desired first child.
What I love about the liturgical calendar is that its rhythms – inward and outward, up to emotional heights and down to the gritty depths of reality – provide an orderly way for us to experience and rehearse the same kind of patterns we all eventually encounter, albeit in disorderly and often unexpected forms, in our ordinary lives:
- In Advent we practice waiting and preparing with Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist and the Hebrew prophets, holding out hope and faith in the midst of deep darkness that the light will return and not be overcome.
- At Christmas and throughout Epiphany we acknowledge and celebrate the ways that God’s love is made flesh still today, and all the ways the Holy is revealed in our midst and among those we consider to be “Other.”
- Lent reminds us that we are mortal, humble, made from and returning to the earth, capable of both sin’s estrangement from the Holy and grace’s life abundant, striving to practice fasting or sacrifice in order to deepen our commitment to and reliance on the One who goes before us.
- The passion of Holy Week teaches us to mourn – not just for the death of a beloved friend or family member, not just the martyrdom of a great leader, but for the perpetual unraveling of the world in which we live, the apparent victory of entropy and evil, in a context that acknowledges our own participation in these forces, but follows the tragedy with the astounding good news, “Early on the third day, while it was still dark…”
Of course, there are times when a congregation or an individual needs to break away from observing the liturgical seasons, for a variety of reasons, and there are many ways to keep them that go beyond strict adherence to lectionary texts. But the reason I love liturgical church tradition is that I find it so life-giving, as have nearly a hundred generations before me.
Its formality takes some getting used to, and is part of what makes church so strange and counter-cultural for many people, but the church is no longer part of the dominant culture to begin with, especially in the western US. Because of this, I believe that educating our communities of faith about the history, evolution, and new possibilities of our traditions is more effective than dropping them in an attempt to be more “relevant.” Ultimately, relevance is not about reflecting current trends so much as it is about speaking to people’s real lives, which the traditions of the church calendar are more than capable of.
I pray that this Lent, the meanings of the season find some resonance in your own life, whether as a church leader or as an individual disciple of Jesus. And if they do not, I pray that you may see how the themes, symbols, and practices of the season are life-giving to others in your community, and that this becomes their meaning for you as well.
If you are still looking for ideas for your own Lenten practices, here are a few resources to consider:
- Rethink Church, Living the Questions through Lent
- House for All Sinners and Saints, 40 ideas for keeping a holy Lent
- Rachel Held Evans, author and blogger, 40 Ideas for Lent 2014
- Do Lent Generously, 40 days of giving back, doing good, and living generously
- Maggi Dawn, Associate Professor of Theology and Literature, and Dean of Marquand Chapel, at Yale Divinity School; 40 ways to keep a joyful, thankful, holy Lent