I have got a lot of crepes to make today, as a supplement to the main event which is Regular Pancakes. Anglicans, at least up here, eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, as an attempt, I think, to shrive their fridges of all the fat, earnestly expecting to eat depressing fat-free things for the forty days leading up to Easter. Of course, if you are Catholic, in Lent you can trot over to Wegmans on Fridays and buy the most divinely delicious fried fish and macaroni and cheese. On Fridays I almost forget my Anglican sensibilities as I wander past the Lenten lunch counter.
So anyway, because Lent is tomorrow, the New York Times rushed around to get someone to say something about it. And the person they found is someone who, during the pandemic, found she had no more desire to go to church. As she faces Lent in this difficult age, and particularly Ash Wednesday, she asks herself what she will do. The church will go on in its usual way, but she won’t be there:
Performing this ancient ritual, he will murmur, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The priest will say these words on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, but he will not be saying these words to me.
The main reason for this, she says, is that she wasn’t allowed to become a priest because she is a woman. But the deeper problem, I think, is that she doesn’t believe in the God whom Christians worship. She puts it this way:
I have had a troubled relationship with the church of my childhood since childhood itself, when I learned in Catholic school that I would never be allowed to become a priest. For decades, nevertheless, the gifts of my faith outweighed the pronouncements of the institutional church that I found alienating or enraging. Human institutions are inherently flawed, and I have always loved the rituals that linked me across time to so many others facing fear and loneliness and pain, to so many others finding solace in their faith. Then the pandemic quarantines left me unchurched through no choice of my own, and the death of our last parent, for whom there would only ever be one Church, left my husband and me free to make our own choices about where to worship.
There has been a great sifting, that’s true. If you were a person who “attended” a church before the pandemic, the numbers are showing that you didn’t really feel like you needed to return when in-person worship resumed. Rather, it was the people who sat in front of their wretched screens for several months, frustrated out of their wits, who rushed back to the pews as soon as they were able. These people weren’t church “attenders,” they were members, they belonged—not by some happenstance, but because they had worked for many years to wedge themselves into the lives of other people. Or rather, God incorporated them into the mystical Body of his Son. It was painful and hard, but it happened, and so on the other side of lockdown, there wasn’t any question, they went rushing back.
But I’m wandering away from the point, which is Lent:
And isn’t the promise of immortality what Lent prepares us for? How will I make ready, now that I am without a church? What rituals will I observe, now that the stations of the cross no longer belong to me?
Well, yes, Lent should prepare a person for the “promise of immortality.” But that is rather a vague way of putting it. I would say, rather, that Lent is a time to discover afresh that you are a sinner who will one day (perhaps sooner than you like) face a Just and Holy God who sees all you have done and all you have thought and all you have left undone. This holy God cannot live in the presence of wickedness and sin, which is what—if you look closely—you will discover you have committed yourself to. But this holy and just God is also merciful. It is one of his “properties,” that is, it is part of who he is. And so he provides a way out of the problem. He comes and takes your place, receiving in himself the penalty due for your sin and rejection of him. He takes up the cross and dies, offering his death in exchange for yours. The “promise of immortality” is not some vague life that goes on in the same way it has here, only more spiritual or something. It is a sure and certain life with God forever. Tracing out the Stations of the Cross through Lent, or in Holy Week is one way that Christians remind themselves of the moving and astonishing mercy of God, who set aside everything to reclaim them and bring them home to himself. But sure, I guess if you don’t believe that anymore, you could still try to do something to mark the occasion. I don’t know why, except to keep the vestigial and beautiful remains of self-sacrifice because doing something uncomfortable might make you feel better about your inevitable demise:
In the old days, my Lenten resolution almost always meant giving up something whose absence I would feel acutely: coffee, perhaps, or cussing. In that way I would be reminded, again and again, of what this season is for. But the practice of imposed sacrifice feels as alien to me now as anything else from my decades as a practicing Catholic. Haven’t we all had enough sacrifice in these last years? Every day I grieve two beloved family members lost during this pandemic. Every day I bear the grief of a burning world. I don’t need to give up cussing at Vladimir Putin, too.
Or not. I guess don’t give anything up. I mean, the thing you are really invited to do is not give up coffee or chocolate, or even sin, but to give your whole self to Jesus. Offer yourself as a “living sacrifice” to the God who made you and loves you enough to endure the shame of the cross for you.*
Life is hard for all living things. To make it harder — knowingly and willingly, for even a contained period of time — is a uniquely human exercise. We want to be better than we are. We want living to mean more than surviving. There is something truly beautiful about that impulse, whatever form it takes.
The beauty, actually, isn’t just in making something harder as a way of making something better. That is a profound misunderstanding of the Christian exercise. Christians give themselves up entirely to Jesus day after day (even in Lent) because they are so grateful for him, because they love him, because he withheld nothing of himself, giving his own body and blood to be their food and drink, to join them to himself in an eternal marriage that never is broken or ruined. They joyfully suffer for the sake of others because of the wondrous and astonishing love that he pours into their hearts. This is not a human exercise, it is a divine one, it is being caught up into the life of God which is so much better and richer and stronger than this paltry, broken, ruined one we are enduring here.
But as a new member of the unchurched Christian faithful…
I’m so sorry, but I must say it once more with tears—you are not a Christian if you don’t believe in Jesus, and one of the markers of your belief, the fruit, if you will, is that you earnestly desire to be in church with other people who believe. There is no “unchurched Christian faithful.” That is not a thing…
…what am I supposed to do with Lent? Surely there must be some spiritual practice that falls between a church-ordained ritual and a secular perfectibility project. Something that would help me use this time of prayer and reflection to move away from the fears I cannot shake — for my country, for my planet — and toward a stronger faith in the possibility of redemption, a more certain conviction that all is not yet lost in this deeply troubled world. My maternal forebears, all Protestants, were great believers in starting the day with a prayer and an entry from that season’s devotional. But my idea of a daily spiritual practice is less a prayer written by someone else than a walk in the woods alone. A devotional isn’t what I’m looking for, and neither is another church’s Lenten program. Not yet, anyway. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m looking for.
Dear heart, the person you are looking for is Jesus. And there is no finding him in the woods, in some kind of gazing up at the sky by yourself, trying to make yourself feel something, who knows what. Jesus is the only one who can prepare you for death, lead you into eternal life, and make you even know yourself. If you don’t find him, you will be lost in all your wanderings. Look for him. Go to church. Open his book. Read it. Otherwise this will be eternally true for you:
I will almost certainly continue to feel just a little bit lost. I’ll look for a new church someday, a new place to put all this sorrow and a new community with whom to share it, but I’m not obliged to find that place just now. Ash Wednesday tells me only to keep trying: to believe, to be better, not to give up hope. And that’s faith enough for any season.
No, I’m so sorry, that’s not faith enough for any season. Ash Wednesday does not tell you to “keep on trying.” No one can overcome sin and death by trying harder. The only way out of the pit that we dig for ourselves is to call out for mercy to the One who is able and willing to have mercy. The only way out is to look at the cross where justice and mercy embrace each other. The only remedy for sorrow and loss is to be consoled by the one who made you and has the power to redeem you. Go get ash smeared on your forehead if you like, but more than that, in the desolation of your soul, say to Jesus, “Save me.” He will. It is for that very reason that he died and rose again.
* Go ahead and give up things to help you keep your eyes on Jesus, of course, but don’t give anything up if you haven’t already put your whole life into his hands. That’s just heaping up more ruin for yourself in eternity.