Looking Forward to Lent

I realized last 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 of
my childhood, 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 culture, Easter followed
upon 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 became scarcer as stores ran out, so
we tightened our belts. It’s not doctrinal,
but it is a wise strategy of the church to
deal with one of the most difficult times of
year and use it as a way of understanding
sin and suffering.

For a native of 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,
like that of the whole fallen world. Lent acknowledges
not only my imperfections and
my debts but my sorrows and my fears
and my embarrassments. 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; it hinted of a deeper and
more meaningful world that required solemn
preparation. I love Lent and Easter
increasingly as I grow older, as perhaps a
greater, 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 hope come 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.

Jessica Stockton is the co-proprietor of Greenlight
Bookstore and a member of Old First Reformed Church,
both in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at writtennerd.blogspot.com.