Finding space for joy during Lent

Published 4:52 pm Thursday, March 10, 2022

Ash Wednesday began the Christian season of Lent, the 40 days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter.  Traditionally, it’s a time of penitence, of combing through our personal histories and repenting of the harm we’ve done.  Generally speaking, there are two main aspects to ‘keeping a holy lent’. First, Christians take up a new spiritual discipline, like praying every day at 7a.m. or by fasting from one meal to give the money to the poor. Secondly, people give something up.  I’ve heard any number of things give up during Lent.  Chocolate, wine, and caffeine are some of the usual suspects.  They can more spiritual, less material too.  So, people give up gossip, or anger.  You get the picture.

Yet, this Lent will be the third Lent in a row lived during the pandemic.  And since those early days of 2020, so much more has happened in the world.  Not only must we experience Lent during a pandemic yet again, but also while a vicious war rages in Ukraine. Each year, the prospect of depriving myself of something during Lent is less and less attractive when we have all been deprived of one of the most necessary things over the last three years: rest. All of this leads me to the following conclusion: Don’t give up anything for Lent, because this world has already taken too much.

I don’t think fasting from destructive behaviors is a bad idea.  It’s always a good idea to let go of what destroys ourselves and others.  But when I suggest not giving anything up for Lent, I’m focused on those things that are like little creature-comforts: chocolate, coffee, beer, red meat, etc. If giving up those things is important to you and feels helpful, by all means, ‘give up!’ But for those for whom the prospect of fasting feels heavier than usual, then perhaps the thing to ‘give up’ is the idea that traditional pious behaviors are the only way to keep a holy Lent.

Knowing that there are non-Christians who might be reading these words, the conviction running under my words remains the same: in this difficult world, be gentle with yourself. The world with its demands will not give back to us what it takes from us.  So, we must claim what we need.  And it seems to me that the world just needs a break.  The world needs rest from all of the chaos and uncertainty. And whether your are feeling the burden to perform because of the arrival of Lent or simply because our society demands ever-increasing productivity, I hope you can find the energy to resist those forces which guilt you into behaving in ways you don’t really desire.

I suppose, at the end of the day, I am giving up something for Lent.  I’m once again setting aside the idea that God is only pleased when I deprive myself of something that brings joy in a perpetually painful world.  Fundamentally, I believe God desires our health and well-being over rituals we barely have the strength for. Because if God demanded ever greater self-denial in a world demanding too much of us already, than perhaps the best thing to give up for Lent would actually be God.

Thankfully, we have words to the contrary, for the God I serve once said this to a people in pain, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ I truly hope you find space for joy, that you remember you deserve rest and relaxation, and that you resist any impulse to over function and over perform. In that way, a truly holy Lent will be kept.

Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.