Monday, March 02, 2009

Looking Forward to Lent

A guest posting by Jessica Stockton, member of Old First, and author of Book Nerd.

I've realized this year how much I look forward to Lent. I didn't grow up observing it – it wasn't much emphasized in the California Mennonite Brethren Church, and I think I learned about it from my Catholic friends. It sounded a little weird to me, as it probably does to most people.

It was actually a French cookbook that deepened my understanding. Amid the decadent recipes for Easter cakes and meats, the author mentioned that in traditional French and European culture, Easter was following on a long cold season where no one had eaten meat, eggs, or milk. This was a kind of medieval detox, she suggested, that made the spring Easter feast all the more enjoyable.

I hadn't thought before that about how seasonally appropriate Lent is, or was in a culture more connected to the seasons. Food was scarcer as stores ran out, so we tightened our belts. It's not doctrinal, but it's a wise strategy of the church, to deal with of the most difficult time of year and use it as a way of understanding sin and suffering.

Coming from the mild weather of California, this part of the year in the Northeast has always been especially difficult for me. It's been so cold for so long, and it seems to be getting colder, and it seems there's so much more winter still to come. I chafe against the weather, frustrated and angry and indignant. Lent is a way of accepting the darkness and the cold as right and appropriate for its time. I look forward to Lent because it makes sense of the darkness.

My temperament tends toward optimism, even in the face of opposition. And my job involves a lot of smiling, making people comfortable, and speaking enthusiastically about whatever I'm presenting. Lent allows me a break, at least internally, from my own cheerfulness, even my own optimism. It is a time to recognize that I am broken, that the world is broken, and to sit with that knowledge for forty long days. The dead, cold natural world, and my own body made of dust that shivers and aches, reflect the state of my own selfish, ashamed soul in need of redemption, and whole fallen world. Lent acknowledges not only my imperfections and my debts, but my sorrows and my fears and my embarrassments. And it is both pain and relief to acknowledge these things.

When I was a child I loved the mystery of Christmas, the anticipation of Advent. It was a break from the casual blandness of everyday life, an implication that there was a deeper and more meaningful world that required solemn preparation. I love Lent and Easter increasingly as I grow older, as perhaps a greater, a more grown-up mystery. With its focus on the death that precedes the resurrection, it can only resonate if you have had time to understand suffering, to see death. I appreciate the chance to participate in this mystery, the long preparation for the day of the Lord.

And when Easter arrives, all that joy and optimism comes rushing back, fresh and real. We are saved, we are brought to life, each of us clothed in glory as the earth breaks forth into blossom. And we have been saved all along. The sun does shine in February, and Christ's salvation isn't dormant during Lent. But it is good to live mindfully through the mystery of darkness, so that we can be dazzled again by the light.