“Because we forget, we fail,” wrote the great Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann in his great little book on Lent. “And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes … ultimately meaningless — a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end.”
Things can seem pretty meaningless in this February 2021: even as increased numbers of Americans get vaccinated, the masks, social distancing, and quarantines will continue; the economic recovery will likely be long and painful; and the unity agenda is actually quite divisive. This makes our Lent in 2021 all the more important. So, an important question beckons: How will you spend it?
When most folks think of Lent, they think of ashes on foreheads and the inevitable question of “what did you give up?” Yet the Lenten season is not about simple virtue-signaling of one’s holiness — or even one’s fashion sense — on Ash Wednesday. It is also more than simply begrudgingly giving up sweets or liquor for a half-dozen weeks. For as terrible a year as we’ve had since the last Lent, we need to tap into the true spiritual power of the church’s ancient practices regarding this liturgical season.
Traditionally, Lent is supposed to be a practice of three-fold devotional observances. Beyond making a sacrifice of some sort during the penitential season, there are two others: to engage in an additional form of prayer and to perform a form of almsgiving or charitable work.
Taken together, these three practices are aimed at attacking our pride of life, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of our eyes. All three are worth considering to make our own Lent a spiritually potent experience this already frustrating year.
First, let’s consider sacrifices. Yes, one can give up a favorite food or drink, as an offering to God and a detachment from the material things we look to for comfort. This is especially valuable when it is something we’ve become dependent on to the point where we can’t imagine life without it, whether it be sugar in your coffee, a beer after work, or a dessert after dinner.
We should also think of the habits that distract and hurt us. It could be the constant scrolling of social media, binge-watching television programs, or indulging in endless hours of gaming. Sometimes you don’t realize how addicted you are to these things — and how much they negatively affect you — until you go without them for a while.
Yet, as Jesus himself warned, if a demon finds our house “empty, swept, and put in order,” he’ll go and bring ”seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there,” and our condition will be worse than before (Matthew 12:44-45).
Thus, we must also develop new patterns of life, especially habits of prayer. This could be as simple as replacing a bad habit with a good one. Instead of opening the phone first thing in the morning and scrolling through the news or social media, pray and read scripture. As many minutes as you give to a television program, give to spiritual reading. Instead of playing a video game, go to a church service.
Closely tied to this is the third Lenten practice of charity. Of course, one can simply make an additional charitable contribution to some good cause. Yet there is so much more that one can do, especially when millions of Americans are unemployed, underemployed, or hungry.
Churches and other charitable organizations can always use additional hands willing to serve. In an America whose atomization has been compounded by social distancing and quarantines, why not reach out to one’s immediate neighbors?
Imagine what it would do to the fraying chords of our civic society if we started knocking on doors in our neighborhood, introducing ourselves, and offering to help with whatever our neighbors need. Seemingly small acts of grace and kindness can go a long way, especially when people are lonely.
This points to the ultimate purpose of Lent, and what Schmemann argues in “Great Lent” differentiates Christian love from social activism. The social activist cares about man, “an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity.’”
Followers of Christ care about individual persons for whom Christ lived and died. Social activism’s approach is decidedly “futuristic” and utopian. “Christianity,” says Schmemann, “cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now — the only decisive time for love.” The Christian does not wait for an idealized future, but sacrifices, prays, and serves in the immediate present.
Lent is often a time of annoyance that elicits stubborn, reluctant acquiescence (“I guess I’ll give up sweets”). Yet the ancient traditions of Christianity intend it to be not another staid, formulaic religious practice, but a life-giving fountain of grace that orients our hearts, minds, and bodies towards the transcendent and eternal.
In the clearing of our souls and the gift of ourselves, we make room to hear and encounter God — we realize we’ve replaced God with so many other little, trivial things, and recognize how we drowned God out with our devices and technology.
I’ll admit, I’ve had some pretty poor Lents, in which my efforts at penitence were half-hearted, at best. It was my loss, however, as I allowed the meaningless of the daily grind to crowd out the meaningful. Yet, as Schmemann reminds us, we have only so many years to prepare ourselves for the next life.
If we are complacent, the years come and go, and we find ourselves increasingly unprepared and weakened by our indolence. “We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our ‘enjoying life’ it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless.” That’s certainly true in 2021 when reports indicate more than 450,000 Americans have died with COVID-19.
America needs us. Our family, friends, and neighbors need us. And we need to see ourselves not just in our sin and frailty, but also as men and women created in the image of God, intended to exemplify lives of heroic virtue and sacrifice that change the world and prepare us for eternity.
In the past, when America’s faithful have acted together for the common good, we have achieved unparalleled historic accomplishments. 2021 presents us another opportunity, one that calls to every single one of us.