The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.
Alone and fasting, Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.
So Daniel trained his mystic sight,
Delivered from the lion’s might;
And John, the Bridegroom’s friend, became
The heralds of Messiah’s name.
Then grant that we like him be true,
Consumed in fast and prayer with You;
Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see your face.
-Gregory the Great (540-604), Trans. Maurice F. Bell (1862-1947)
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
The gritty ash grinds into my forehead as one of the elders dips her thumb into the dish full of ash which is as dark as my sin, and marks a cross into my forehead.
As she marks the cross, she looks me in the eye while reciting those haunting words reminding me of my mortality, of my brokenness, of my sin, of who I am and who God is.
Today, Lent begins. Lent is a season that is filled with prayer, repentance, and change. It is a season when it is common to give something up, or to take something on. We do this in order that we can identify with the sufferings of Christ, and in doing so, we can enter into a deeper and closer relationship with the divine. This causes Lent to, even further, be a somber season filled with suffering, and self-denial. While I appreciate Lent and other melancholy seasons, this hymn invites me — invites us — to nuance the way in which we view and experience Lent.
I have never before heard the forty days of Lent used in the same sentence as “glory” and describing the observation of Lent as a “celebration.”
What I have often forgotten in my own observance of Lent, is that the purpose of this season is to bring us into deeper relationship with the divine, and that God brings joy — a joy which is deeper and richer than simply happiness.
The wonderful thing about this particular hymn, is that it links fasting and praying with joy, glory, and celebration. Suffering is not an end, it is only beneficial insofar as it brings us into a closer relationship with God and helps us to experience the joy and glory of God with fresh eyes of the heart.
I have been trying to figure out how I am going to observe Lent this year. I have found that giving up meat, giving up dairy, or something of the like does not bring me to a place where I can experience the joy and glory of God with new eyes and a renewed spirit. As often happens, my life goes on as normal only without meat, without dairy, or whatever the case may be.
Truthfully, I don’t need to give up meat or dairy in order to experience suffering. Suffering is all around me, all around us. My ministry is exceptionally taxing, I continue to struggle with discerning God’s calling on my life. There are shootings all around me on a regular basis, some of which reach closely to members of my congregation. I have had loved ones die, many unexpectedly and early. Daily, I see and interact with people who sleep under bridges and hidden away in parks and who try desperately to live through the frozen night to see another day. Compared to all of this, giving up meat for forty days does not seem to be that much of an experience of suffering.
What I need is not something to make me feel melancholy, I live that way throughout all of the other seasons, what I need is not something to make me experience suffering, that is something which is lived and experienced throughout all of the other seasons. What I need is this:
Our spirits strengthen with Your grace,
And give us joy to see Your face.
This year, for Lent, I will not be giving anything up. Fasting is good, it is something which, rightly practiced, can refocus our lives and renew our spirits. I will continue in my typical practice of fasting, but I will not fast from anything new. I am going to celebrate Lent by seeking the joys and glory of God even amidst the brokenness and of the world, and allow that experience of glory to purify my heart, my soul, and my life.. After all, this is what Lent is about: turning us back toward God in preparation for the new life of the resurrection.
This year, then, as the grass greens, the bare and dead-looking trees bud new life, and as the flowers send up shoots, may my heart also spring fresh shoots of new life and a new commitment to following the triune God.