The season of Lent always elicits lots of jokes, especially about what we choose to give up. The priest I grew up with, for instance, was always reminding us that he didn’t want to hear anyone say in the middle of February that they were giving up watermelon for Lent. Or I heard someone say this week that their plan is to give up their New Year’s resolutions for Lent. And so it goes …
But humor is often a sign of dis-ease, isn’t it? We joke about what we don’t feel comfortable with, as a way of managing our discomfort. So what do you suppose makes us uncomfortable with Lent?
Perhaps it is simply the fact that Lent asks us to take responsibility for ourselves. To become accountable. To own who we are. And of course, at some level, none of us likes that kind of scrutiny—and so we mask our discomfort by joking about it.
But perhaps the problem is that we get the idea of Lent all wrong in the first place. The associations we most strongly have with it tend, after all, toward the negative: guilt, mortality, austerity, aridity, restraint.
Yet to my mind, these caricatures of Lent obscure what authentically lies at its heart: an invitation to go deeper into our relationship with God, and to find there layers of meaning and love that we have as yet only begun to imagine.
More than a season of denying ourselves of something we desire, perhaps Lent is really about discovering that which we most truly desire, which is to be touched by God’s love in a way that opens us to the deeper mysteries of life. That, at least, seems to be the implication of the prophet Joel’s reminder to the people of Israel, when he calls them in our Old Testament lesson to their own season of repentance: above all, he insists, God is abounding in steadfast love, slow to anger and of great kindness. So he encourages us turn to God not out of guilt, but out of longing—wanting to be caught up in our own personal encounter with that kind of love.
Perhaps, then, Lent is really about mindfulness, of becoming more truly aware of the divine reality that surrounds us at all times, but which we largely overlook in the rush and anxiety of daily life. Perhaps Lent is about seeking a peace of mind that will allow us to become aware that we are—even in this very moment—held in the loving gaze of God, a God who looks on us lovingly, longingly, and patiently, wanting only to be fully known and then to have that love returned in a reciprocal circle of wonder and delight.
Think of it this way: imagine yourself to be sitting in some very public place where there are lots of anonymous people going about their business—something like an airport departure gate, say. And then imagine what it would be like, if in the middle of all that activity among total strangers, you became aware of yourself, and everyone around you, as held in this wholly loving gaze of God?1
What difference would it make, if in that moment, you truly believed yourself subject to a gaze which saw all your surface accidents and arrangements, all your inner habits and inheritances, all your anxieties and arrogances, all your history—and yet a gaze which nevertheless loved that whole tangled bundle which makes you the self that you are, with an utterly free, utterly selfless love?
And what difference would it make in that moment, if you were to see each face around you as equally held in that same over-whelming, loving gaze? What difference would it make if you believed each person around you to be loved with the same focus, by a love which saw each person’s unique history, unique problems, unique capacities, unique gifts, and cherished them for what they are?
Such unfettered acceptance would be utterly disarming; to believe such good news, such a Gospel [of love], would be very, very [challenging].
And that, I think, is the challenge of Lent: for if you think of Lent as a time when we try to become much more aware than we otherwise are, of being held in just such a loving gaze, you might say that at root Lent is about focusing our attention, learning to see ourselves and our fellow human beings, as God sees us. Lent is therefore less about giving something up, than it is about seeing something more, and seeing it more clearly: not only that we are loved and accepted for who we are, but we are also responsible for and accountable to others, for who they are.
So Lent is no joke. It is about attentiveness—attentiveness to how God is present, in the present moment. During these forty days, then, try to take time to let yourself become aware of that loving gaze in which you, and those around you, are held—at work, at school, in a coffee shop, at the store. See it all as God sees it: worthy of being loved, worthy of your commitment, worthy even of your compassion. For in the end, Lent is about nothing less, than learning to see the world around us as it really is, caught in the unending, inexhaustible, loving gaze of God.
© Joseph Britton, 2016
1 I am indebted for this image to Mike Higton, Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (SCM Press, 2004).