Each year the season of Lent asks us to embrace a spiritual gravity, a downward movement of soul, a turning from our self-sufficiency and sinfulness. In such quiet turning we are humbled and thus made ready to receive from God a fresh and joyous grace.
Bobby Gross, in Living the Christian Year
When I came across this observation a week or so before Ash Wednesday, it occurred to me suddenly that I am deeply grateful for the gift of Lent. Those early Christians, guided by the Spirit, were wise to set this season aside and I would like to thank them publicly.
You see, the characteristics of Lent – humility, simplicity, repentance, self-examination – strike me as absolutely necessary for the human condition but almost impossible to inhabit in a sustained way. I tend to walk around with the vague sense that I ought to be denying myself more, that I am probably too much at home in the world, that I don’t spend nearly enough time in prayer and self-examination. Probably if I devoted all of my time to these things, I’d still never quite get the job done. (Lots of monastics testify to this: the only problem with entering a monastery is that your self goes too!)
But somewhere, a long time ago, some very wise men and women developed a focused season in which to practice humility, prayer, fasting, and all the other spiritual exercises that are so very necessary for us scattered and broken beings. And it happens over and over again, because every year we will fail in some way and need to keep practicing. What a gift: to have a demarcated, sacred time in which to practice specific disciplines. These men and women knew we need these things. They also knew we can’t do them all the time, at least not with the same intensity. But we can do them together, at the same time every year.
And the season of Lent ends. While fasting might seem like the most appropriate way for me to live most of the time – I don’t know about you, but there is a lot I need to learn to say no to – that’s actually not the case. Lent transitions into Holy Week and death, which transitions again into Resurrection and feast. And while those of us with a healthy sense of total depravity may occasionally forget it, feasting is just as appropriate and necessary as fasting. We are (and now I’m mixing my Reformers; forgive me) simul iustus et peccator; wholly broken and wholly justified; dead in our trespasses and alive in Christ.
We need to fast and we need to feast. To everything is a season, and right now I am terribly grateful to be told when they are.