~ These Forty Days of Lent ~
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”
Dear Members and Friends,
On that old TV show, MASH, Father Mulcahy says to Klinger, “I thought you were an atheist.” And Klinger replies, “I gave it up for Lent.” That was the first time I ever heard of Lent! When I was a kid, we didn’t observe Ash Wednesday or have special church programs during the forty-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. There was no fasting or “giving anything up” either. Of Lent’s forty days, I knew only three: Palm Sunday (which all children loved because it meant waving exotic tropical leaves in church), Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Unlike my Catholic schoolmates and step-cousins, in later years, I was never called upon to give up Bazooka bubblegum or candy cigarettes during Lent. (Though in retrospect, I can’t believe candy cigarettes were permitted at any time of year.) And yet, our permissive Lenten neglect was more than made up for on Maundy Thursday, the most horrifying day of the year. If Lent was meant to be a season of suffering for one’s sins, then Maundy Thursday squeezed forty days of wretchedness into one. I hated Maundy Thursday worse than the first day of school. I hated Maundy Thursday worse than the day of the annual flu shot. I even hated it worse than that one day each year when the school nurse would line everyone up and check our heads for lice. Maundy Thursday meant going to “night church” for an awkward service of foot-washing. My brothers and I were the only kids who were forced to go, too! My sister—and all other children—found ways to escape the annual indignities of Maundy Thursday.
On that most disgraceful day, we would gather in a circle with a dozen or so older gentlemen, and at the appointed time, everyone took off his shoes and socks, and those old fellows set about the business of washing our feet. There was real soap, a basin of warm water, and towels. It was awful. And then, after our feet had been handled by a near-stranger, we would have to wrap a towel around our waists, kneel in front of our elders and wash their feet. (I don’t know which was more horrifying for a nine-year-old boy: being washed or doing the washing.) I still recall my first Maundy Thursday at college when I realized with deep relief that I was a thousand miles from home, and all feet would remain the sole domain of those who walked on them. But now, as a Presbyterian, I see the beauty of Lent.
Why is Lent cast as such a gloomy time? An old Dutch saying goes, “He’s as welcome here as the first day of Lent.” And yet, it’s a time of year when the days are growing longer, when light is increasing and reaching into corners long dark. It’s a time of year when flower bulbs beneath the frozen earth are stirring themselves to new growth, new life. Surely our dour notions of Lent come from the idea that God is only made happy by our sufferings. Western Christianity still holds a very old superstition that drawing closer to God requires deprivation, hair-shirts, and self-flagellation. Why else would you give up chocolate for forty days, only to take it up again on Easter morning?
Instead of depriving yourself of something for Lent, why not enrich yourself? Do you think you could say the Prayer of St. Patrick each morning for forty days? (Google it.) You might try reading the daily lectionary for forty days: www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/devotions/. How about giving yourself twenty whole minutes of uninterrupted silence at the beginning or the close of each day for forty days? (Okay, then make it fifteen. Ten? Okay, ten. But that’s as low as I’ll go!) If you must give something up, how about blame, or gossip, or any technology that makes you less present to those who love you? How about giving up the price of a cup of coffee each day and sending it to SHIM?
Lent begins this year on February 10 with a service of ashes in the sanctuary. Each Wednesday in Lent, we will hold traditional services of compline (see the announcement) at which someone you may have known for years will share the story of his or her faith journey. I hope you’ll take up some joyful practice in this Lenten season. And make your journey toward Easter with us.
In Christ’s peace,