“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” Prayed during the Ash Wednesday liturgy, these words bid the church enter into Lent’s season. They are both beautiful and daunting, especially as we all find ourselves sorting through our daily priorities, risks, and commitments. Even so, it is usually one of my favorite times of the liturgical year. Lent is like a spiritual reset, and it allows me to reflect on why my faith journey is a priority. There are so many aspects of life that draw us in different directions. Work obligations, family, social circles, charitable commitments, and even vacations pull at us with conflicting pressure. It is tempting, to use an appropriate word for the beginning of Lent, to neglect our spiritual life and commitments, especially in a time when it takes extra effort to do so. Is it okay to be overwhelmed with the world right now? Yes. Is it normal to feel that you are treading water and the shore is far away? Yes. Motivation to enter into a period of self-denial, fasting, and meditating on God’s Holy Word may sound like it is just too much. I have to tell you, in many ways, I agree.
When I lived in South Africa, one of the things that surprised me was the church’s Holy Week and Easter priorities. The highest attended service for Anglican churches in the township was Good Friday, not Easter Sunday. This shocked me for several reasons. First, this is opposite to the Episcopal Church. Second, why would a community of people who, for most of them, had lived under systematic oppression, who continued to languish in poverty and whose community is so ravaged by the AIDS epidemic that funerals had become a weekly occurrence see Good Friday and the passion as having more spiritual connection than resurrection and Easter? I asked the Rector of the church I was serving, and his response was, “Because that’s the day he died.” Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and violent death were something they could understand. That Jesus, their lord, suffered meant he understood what they experienced. They would sacrifice to make sure they were there to hear this message. They would take off work, which for most was difficult, walk or pay for a taxi, to get to church for what was usually a more than 3-hour event.
I learned from them that we don’t always need to treat our hard times with good ones to make up for what we experience. We tend to see our world in hard work and much-earned vacations. Are you having a hard time? Maybe I can cheer you up by doing something fun? But, possibly, just perhaps, some repentance and self-denial could be what we need right now in our faith journey. We could find that we can connect to these Lenten readings in ways that used to elude us and see that we have a companion in our sufferings and struggles.