Lenting Hard . . . or Hardly Lenting?

During the last couple weeks of March, I encountered several versions of this thought on social media: “I am Lenting harder this Lent than I have ever Lented before.”
This, of course, is a reference to most parts of the U.S. being in some sort of stay-at-home status as the COVID-19 virus continues its rampage. I do realize that this is meant to be humorous, and heaven knows a sense of humor and a sense of balance are essential during times like these.

These statements also led me to an examination of conscience. First off, I had to note the difference between living under stay-at-home orders (as I am in Chicago), and the voluntary nature of the disciplines I take on during Lent. Also different is the definitive terminus of Lent, and the much more nebulous end-time for the virus quarantine.

Further reflection brought me to a place where I had to consider honestly how much my observation of Lenten disciplines truly has an impact on my life—my activities and behaviors—to the extent that the stay-at-home order has. I’ve mistaken my relatively consistent faithfulness to Lenten disciplines (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, with an additional specific discipline or two that I choose each year) as truly “Lenting” during that forty-day stretch of life.

Truth be told, my life under the stay-at-home order doesn’t come under the category of “hardship” (as in “Lenting so hard”), but more as annoyance or inconvenience. I am not in an “essential” job (another word for “sacrificial” as some commentators have put it), so am not regularly putting my life in jeopardy, as so many in health care, public service, and retail food supply are. Though I’m not fond of it, I am able to work at home. I’m most certainly not enduring hardship to the extent that society’s poor and communities of color are right now.

From a broader perspective, I’ve begun to look at how I am changed by my Lenten observances once Lent is over. The socio-political commentator Andrew Sullivanhas been writing about this current pandemic from his own perspective as a gay man who lived through the AIDS pandemic of the 80s and 90s. One of his major themes is that we—as individuals, as communities, as countries, as a world—will come out the other side of a plague different than when it began. There’s no escaping that reality. I have yet to summon up the courage to look deeply and ask myself if I will come out the other side of Lent 2020 differently than when I went in; have I been Lenting hard or hardly at all?

Palm Sunday is a day of enterings: Jesus entering into Jerusalem and our entering into Holy Week. So I ask myself, as Lent draws to a conclusion, has my increased prayer allowed me to enter in a place where God truly permeates every moment? Can I, therefore, enter into a place of patience as I wait at a distance, in my mask, for the other person who needs the same item from the store? Does my almsgiving still come from my excess, or am I able to distinguish my true needs from mere wants? Can I, then, shrug off the “charity fatigue” that sets in, and give until it truly—not metaphorically—hurts? Has my increased fasting helped me truly be in greater solidarity with the hungry, looking for ways beyond charity to address systems of inequity that cause hunger, though they don’t have an impact on my own life? Can I, all in all, fashion my life more closely after the Christ who will, during this week, fully enter into the pain, the suffering, and the dying of humanity?

There is no doubt that this year’s Holy Week will, for most of us, be one of the most unusual we’ve ever experienced. For those involved in liturgical ministries it will be a week of “virtual” worship, as it will for the faithful. The challenge, then, is to make sure that we avoid “virtually” entering into this week. We must—as Christ truly and fully and eternally did—enter into his suffering, so we can also enter into the suffering of the world around us.

As Henri Nouwen expressed it: “Suffering accepted and shared in love breaks down our selfish defenses and sets us free to accept God’s guidance.” May our Lenten efforts and Holy Week celebrations allow that suffering, accepted and shared in love by the Divine Incarnate, to enter into our lives, break down our selfishness, and set us free in Resurrection.

Palm Sunday photo: Jill Maria Murdy, Liturgical Ministries Coordinator, Adrian Dominicans, Grand Rapids, MI. Used with permission.

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