“Must We Do Lent This Year?”

“Must we do Lent this year? We have had such a long and difficult year. We have already lost so much. There has already been too much death. Perhaps it would be a pastoral response for us to take a break from Lent this year.” 

I’ve heard versions of this question recently. Without minimizing for a moment the challenges we have been facing for what seems like forever – a public health crisis, a mental health emergency, the loss of social commerce and the rise of peril for those in domestic risk, a national political and economic crisis – and with the deepest respect for exhausted clergy and lay leaders (I’m one of you!) – I offer some thoughts on this question.  

  • The question betrays, I fear, a misunderstanding of Lent. To begin from the view that Lent is about death and about losing things – closely related, I fear, to the widespread treatment of Lent as a time to give up things we like (often rather trivial) – is to begin in the wrong place. Lent is, in its roots and its core, a time to renew and deepen our commitment to our baptismal life. As a part of that renewal, we refresh our awareness of our mortality (hardly something from which we can take a break, anyway) and acknowledge the sin that deals us death instead of the LIFE that living in Christ brings.  
  • In what year, then, could the keeping of Lent be MORE appropriate? Our mortality is in front of us daily. Our sins are everywhere in evidence. This year, hard as it has been, is different in degree but not in kind from the human condition we ever inhabit. Our sins kill us. Our mortality will end us, no matter what our state of spiritual maturity or depth. Like the visitors to Rumi’s guesthouse (look it up!), if hard things are not also acknowledged, if death is not faced and sin is not named, we are dealt another death – a spiritual death. A paralyzing fear. A flight from reality that only redoubles the harm we do to ourselves and others, and inevitably ends in numbness. Facing our mortality, naming our sins and turning again from them, brings LIFE. We could use some LIFE right now.  
  • Lent, therefore, is not simply about sorrow and loss. Rather, speaking our sorrow, naming our sins, accepting our mortality and the losses it brings, we flourish in the embrace of the God of the Crucified-Risen One whose Love is not defeated by any of those things…. and that brings JOY.  
  • Yes, JOY. Lent is also about joy to the extent that our effort, by the grace of God, to return to the life God offers, is a moment of solemn celebration. Not facile optimism, but the celebration of the Life incarnate in the resurrected body of him who still bore the marks of his suffering. There is sorrow in repentance – in turning again – as we acknowledge death and loss. But there is JOY in Lenten repentance. It is a turning again toward LIFE. It is a return to what heals us.  

I don’t know about you all, but I could use some more joy in a Love from whom we are not separated by pandemic or disaster, who does not abandon us despite our deep sins. The keeping of time by our sacred calendar forms us in this honesty, this turning, and this joy.  

Why, in God’s name, would we take a “break” from Lent this year?  

When the time comes: Blessed Lent to all! 

The Rev. James W. Farwell, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology and Liturgy
Director of Anglican Studies
Virginia Theological Seminary

Audio recording of this text: “Must we do Lent this year?”

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